NORTHFIELD, Vt. – The Norwich University softball team opens its 2017 season looking to find consistency after an up and down year last year.
The Cadets rallied from a tough start to the year in Florida to go on and win 17 of its final 24 regular season games and earn the No. 4 seed for the GNAC Tournament. However, NU dropped its first two playoff games to Emmanuel and Univ. of Saint Joseph (Conn.) in the double-elimination portion of the tournament to finish tied for fifth.
Norwich went 17-19 overall and 15-7 in GNAC games last year and made the GNAC postseason after missing it in 2015.
"It was a pleasant surprise to end up finishing the way we did after how we started out in Florida," said NU head coach Julie Craig. "The team got in a nice groove as the season went on. Our hitting though never could collectively come together and click at the same time though and that doomed us in the playoffs."
Craig enters her fourth season at the helm of the program, posting a 45-57 career record to date. The Cadets lost three seniors from last year's squad, including GNAC First Team All-Conference selection Taylor Morris, who led the team in batting average last season. Payton Warner and Angie Hershberger also graduated last spring with both earning GNAC All-Conference honors during their four-year careers.
"We lost some good players from last year that were impact players over their four years," Craig said. "But, we've got some strong newcomers that should be able to help fill those shoes."
Two newcomers that Craig expects to have an immediate impact are a pair of freshmen in McKenna Wade (Pensacola, Fla.) and Kate Reid (Gold Canyon, Ariz.).
"We brought in McKenna Wade and Kate Reid who should help fill the void of those three seniors immediately," Craig said. "They are both great infielders with strong bats that should impact the lineup right away."
NU also returns two GNAC Third Team All-Conference selections from last year in sophomores Rachel Johnson (Stockbridge, Vt.) and Emily Oliver (Sagamore Hills, Ohio). Johnson went 9-10 with a 3.41 ERA and 126 strikeouts in 127.1 innings pitched. Oliver went 6-8 with a 3.24 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 90.2 innings pitched. Oliver also contributed at the plate, hitting .309 with three home runs and 15 RBIs.
"We're very fortunate to have Emily and Rachel," Craig said. "I think they are two phenomenal pitchers. As long as they stay healthy and continue to improve, they could be a force to be reckoned with this year in the GNAC. They are two different and distinct pitchers personality wise with how they manage a game and I think they work well off each other."
The Cadets also return junior third baseman and captain Sarah Perry (New Bedford, Mass.) who hit .258 with 10 RBIs last season. Perry will be joined by fifth-year senior Justina George (Wallingford, Conn.), who returns after not being on the team last year, as well as Sarah Peyton (Eagle River, Alaska) to round out this year's leadership trio. George hit .241 with seven RBIs in 2015, while serving as they starting right fielder.
"Perry is a great athlete that has been doing well offensively and defensively for us for two seasons so far," Craig said. "She very rarely commits errors and is our most experienced returning player in the infield. All three of our captains come with a different personality and different leadership style that should mesh well together in filling the void of losing our two captains from last year."
Craig also expects sophomores Madison Miller (Long Lake, N.Y.) and Naomi Rinaldo (Middlefield, Conn.) to have a bigger impact this season after looking strong in preseason practice. Rinaldo led the team in walks last year and is the top returner in on-base percentage from last season.
"Maddy has the skills behind the plate, she just needs to get into that rhythm of being back there every day," Craig said. "She was limited last year, but now will be in the starting role. Naomi (Rinaldo) and McKenna (Wade) will likely split time between short stop and center field in the early going."
Norwich opens its 2017 season at the Spring Games on Monday, March 13 vs. Western New England at 1 p.m. in Clermont, Fla. NU will also face Fitchburg State right after at 3:30 p.m.
"We're focusing on having shorter priorities this year," Craig said. "We played some really good teams in Florida last year and this year we're hoping to come out of there at least .500 and I think we would consider that a big success. We're a young team with majority of players being freshmen and sophomores. We're just looking to build every game and not repeat the same mistakes."
Craig feels that if Norwich can find a little more consistency on offense and pitching this season, the Cadets could once again be a contender if everything starts clicking in sync.
"We're hoping to maintain consistency throughout the season on both offense and defense and then I think we can be a top four contender again," Craig said. "We want to be the top team, but we're going to need a lot of things to fall into place and newcomers to step up."
The Cadets open GNAC play on Saturday, Apr. 1 at Suffolk and then follow up with two-time defending league champion Johnson & Wales on Sunday, Apr. 2.