NORTHFIELD, Vt. – The Norwich University softball team enters the 2019 season with a new coach at the helm and a new conference scheduling matrix that split the 12-team Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) into two six-team divisions.
Craig Billings takes over for Mike Kemp as the head coach of the program after serving as an assistant coach for the past two seasons.
"I'm excited to have this opportunity," Billings said. "I've been coaching softball for about 12 years at different levels. "I love coaching at the college level and fast pitch because there is so much strategy involved. I'm going to do my best to try and help make each player a little better and help our team be a little more competitive."
Norwich is coming off a 12-16 overall season last year and a 10-14 GNAC mark that resulted in the Cadets just missing the final spot in the GNAC Tournament.
The Cadets are determined to get back into the GNAC Tournament in 2019 for the sixth time in the last eight years.
"We've changed our practice plan with a faster pace program now," Billings said. "No one is standing around. People are moving all the time and we're doing a lot of strength and conditioning training. The girls have been eating it up so far."
The Cadets return a trio of senior starters that have been big contributors over their first three seasons with each of them earning All-Conference honors at least once in their careers.
Naomi Rinaldo (Middlefield, Conn.) was named to the GNAC Third Team the last two seasons and is coming off a career year, batting .405 and leading the Cadets in nearly every major offensive category. She has 72 RBIs in her career, tying her for 10th all-time in program history. She also recorded 100 career hits last season as well.
Emily Oliver (Sagamore Hills, Ohio) and Madison Miller (Patterson, Ga.) return as the team's starting pitcher-catcher tandem. Oliver went 7-7 last year in the circle with a 4.46 earned run average. She also hit .354 with 16 RBIs at the plate as a dual threat.
Miller earned All-Conference honors as a sophomore and hit .360 with eight RBIs last season.
Juniors Makenna Wade (Saint Johns, Fla.) and Katie Reid (Gilbert, Ariz.) will hold down the middle of the infield, as well as be relied on to provide offense in the middle of the lineup. Wade hit .442 with 24 RBIs, while Reid led the team with a .444 batting average and a .746 slugging percentage.
All of our returning starters are awesome players capable of being All-Conference," Billings said. "Emily and Madison have been starters for all four years basically. Naomi has been playing anywhere we needed her all over the field. Makenna and Katie have been tremendous players for the first two years as well."
Billings expects three freshmen to come in and contribute immediately as likely starters in outfielders Sydney Parkhurst (Barrington, R.I.) and Dara Kelly (Chesterfield, N.J.), as well as first baseman Faith Poor (New Haven, Ind.).
"All three of them have terrific bats and should help us have one of our best offensive lineups top to bottom in recent years," Billings said.
"Brittany worked hard to rebuild her strength after an injury last year," Billings said. "She should factor in on the mound as well as freshman Adele Cousland."
One thing Billings noted he saw the last two seasons as an assistant coach was the Cadets tended to tire and tail off in the second games of doubleheaders.
"Our endurance has been a problem in the second game sometimes in these doubleheaders," Billings said. "We've really been working on trying to fix that getting into the weight room with Coach Cox."
Last year, Norwich opened its season traveling down to Virginia to play perennial powerhouse Randolph-Macon for a pair of games. This year, the Cadets will head to Myrtle Beach, S.C. for the Fastpitch Dreams Spring Classic and play eight games starting on Monday, April 11.
"Heading to Randolph-Macon was an eye opener getting to see a team like that and what it takes to be at the level," Billings said. "We've used that as motivation for our preparation this year and we found this tournament in Myrtle Beach that should give us a chance to have some success."
Norwich was picked to finish fourth out of six teams in the new-look GNAC North Division this season. Suffolk, Emmanuel and Saint Joseph's (Maine) were all picked ahead of the Cadets. Rivier and Anna Maria followed Norwich in fifth and sixth.
"We like being the underdog," Billings said. "I think we have the potential to compete for the top four overall in this league if we play well and have consistency. Johnson & Wales and Suffolk both have excellent teams year in and year out with great coaching staffs. USJ and Albertus Magnus, Saint Joseph's Maine are strong teams but they are teams we have beaten in the last couple years."
Norwich opens the season on Monday, March 11 at 9:30 a.m. when it takes on Fitchburg State. The Cadets will take on Clarks Summit at 11:30 a.m. as well.