By Avi Miller
Aspirations are higher than ever for the Stevenson softball team after a promising 2013 season that ended with a berth into the conference championship game. The Mustangs hope to keep up that momentum, returning all eight defensive starters and the squad's top three pitchers.
Last season brought many firsts for the team, including a school record 24 wins, the program's first appearance in a conference championship game on top of the first ever postseason victory. The Mustangs secured a spot in the Commonwealth Conference championship with tournament wins over Messiah, Hood, and Alvernia, on their way to an 8-1 loss against host Lebanon Valley in the final game.
"At the end of the season, we snuck into the conference tournament and I think we surprised a lot of people," remarked third year head coach Joey Lye. Lye, a member of the Canadian national team from Scarborough, Ontario, recalls being overlooked heading into last year: "We were underestimated from the start. We were ranked seventh [in the conference] in the preseason and nobody had very high expectations of us. We put our heads down and worked all season and came together as a team."
Earning a selection to the ECAC South Championship, Stevenson fought through wins over McDaniel and Alfred before falling to conference rival Alvernia in a semifinal matchup by a tight score of 2-1. "We snuck into the conference tournament and I think we surprised a lot of people. Coming in second in the ECAC [South Championship] and getting that first postseason win for the program added a lot of confidence to the girls' game that will carry into this season," Lye recalled.r
The Mustangs' season, delayed by weather issues this month, will begin tomorrow, as Stevenson travels to Shenandoah for a doubleheader. Following an eight game road trip in Florida over spring break, Stevenson begins conference play on March 22 when they host Hood for a doubleheader. The team travels to Lebanon Valley, ranked number 16 in the NFCA Division III preseason poll, on April 5, and later to Salisbury, the number three team in that same national poll, on April 27.
The entire starting lineup comes back for the 2014 season, including senior captains Lindsay Kuczak and Kristen Fassler. The outfield will consist of sophomore Kaitlyn Seger in left, Kuczak in center, and senior Brianna Dieter in right.
A Bel Air native, Kuczak has started all 129 games over the past three seasons. She will take on a mightier leadership role now as a captain, wanting to "be a good example" and "lead the team on and off the field." Kuczak maintained, "I try to make sure everyone is working hard and ready to come together as a team to win."
Junior Briana Pichalski and sophomore Molly Hoyt will start the majority of games on the mound for the Mustangs, while juniors Courtney Cook and Abbey DeFeo along with freshman Naomi Fields will split time behind the plate.
But the starters may not always remain the same, as Lye addressed the versatility of this year's roster: "We have so many girls that can play multiple positions. [The ability to rotate players in and out] works in our favor by giving us more opportunities to get different people in the lineup. If someone's bat is hot, we can find a spot for them. It allows us to have a very solid batting lineup at all times."
Hoyt, from Parisppany, N.J., continued, "You never want to come into the season thinking that just because you started last season that you will keep your spot this year."
With a unique position on the roster, Hoyt is a starting pitcher who also lead the team in batting average at the plate just one year ago. The opportunity to carry a strong bat while also making an impact on the mound provides her with a key role, one that the contingent will rely heavily on down the stretch.
"It's nice to have that impact," Hoyt explained. "When I struggle with pitching, I want to be able to go up and swing the bat, bring the runs in. When I'm doing well at both, I feel on top of the world."
Lye is looking for players who will sacrifice their bodies on the diamond and who will show aggressiveness on the base paths. "We want to push for extra bases and make the other team make mistakes," she said.
With a selection of players able to fulfill various roles, the team hopes that last year's focus on team culture and unity will carry over into a fresh season. "We're not just individuals, we're a whole unit," said Ayres. On top of that, Hoyt added, "We need to start from day one. We want to play well enough that we know we're going to the conference tournament."
After the team returned "leaps and bounds" ahead of where they were last fall, "you could definitely see that desire," noted Lye. Coming off perhaps the finest season in the program's history, hopes are high for 2014 as the squad wants to utilize their individual strengths to win even more games. "Our expectation is to be back in the conference championship game and our goal is to win that and make it to an NCAA regional for the first time in program history."
As Ayres stated, "We all have the talent, we all have the skills. If we just believe in making to the end, we'll go far."