BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – It’s hard not to be optimistic when you are entering a season returning all but one player off of a team that went 48-9 the year before. When, among those returners, you have the defending Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) Player of the Year, four first team All-Conference selections, a second team selection and two NAIA All-Americans. Plus an offense that hit .347 as a team and a pitching staff that finished with a combined ERA of 1.71 and a preseason ranking of No. 10 in the NAIA Coaches Poll. Welcome to Olivet Nazarene University softball, 2014 edition.
Leading the Tiger offense and defense are seniors Hannah Gardner (Frankfort, Ill.) and Justine Phillips (Metamora, Ill.). The duo will defend the middle of the infield again this season, after finishing last season with a combined .966 fielding percentage at second base and shortstop, respectively.
Gardner, the defending CCAC Player of the Year and an NAIA 1st Team All-American selection, finished the 2013 season leading the team in most offensive statistical categories, including: batting average (.490), hits (98), doubles (23) triples (7), RBIs (91), slugging percentage (.750) and on-base percentage (.519). She compiled an NAIA record 33-game hitting streak that ran from March 30-May 14. She finished the season ranked first in the NAIA in RBIs per game (1.596), total hits (98) and total RBIs (91) and in the top-ten in nine other categories. She enters the season just three homeruns shy of tying the ONU all-time homerun record (39), currently held by Tiger assistant coach Jordan Reynolds.
Phillips proved she was the person to take over for Jordan Reynolds ('12), a three-time NAIA All-American and CCAC Player of the Year, when she transferred in as a junior. She finished the season hitting .427 with a team-leading 84 runs scored. She compiled 91 hits, including 15 doubles, four triples and two homeruns. She also finished the season with a team-high 36 stolen bases in 38 attempts, while committing just six errors at shortstop. She was named NAIA 2nd Team All-American and CCAC 1st team All-Conference.
Olivet returns their entire pitching staff to the circle. The staff combined for an ERA of 1.71 a year ago in 356 innings. Senior Caitlin Santefort (Mokena, Ill.) led the Tiger staff with a 1.43 ERA, throwing 14 complete games and recording 10 shutouts. Opponents hit a mere .213 against her, while striking out 109 batters and walking just 35. She was named CCAC 1st team All-Conference.
Junior Lindsay Stotler (Bloomington, Ill.) led the Tigers with a 17-1 (.944) record with a 1.80 ERA. She struck out 105 batters in 128.2 innings, walking just 29. She was recognized as a CCAC 2nd team All-Conference honoree. Senior Virginia McAndrews (Wheaton, Ill.) finished the season 14-4 with a 1.88 ERA. In 104.1 innings of action, she struck out 78 and walked 28.
Junior Erika Tatum (Bourbonnais, Ill.) returns as a designated hitter/first baseman. Tatum finished the season with a .392 batting average, connecting for 62 hits. She led the Tigers in hit-by-pitch (21) and was second in on-base percentage (.500). Sophomore Katie Megyesi (Washington, Ill.) made an immediate impact on an already strong Tiger team a year ago, finishing the season with a .323 average. She led the Tiger offense with seven homeruns, appearing in 51 games.
Junior Megan Butler (Frankfort, Ill.) was solid behind the plate, catching all 57 games. She threw out 11-of-24 runners, allowing just eight passed balls and committing just one error. She also hit .310 on the season, including 10 doubles. Senior Cheryl Sendzik (Mokena, Ill.) returns at third base, while juniors Jordy Truelock (Princeton, Ind.) and Rachel Holaway (Wheaton, Ill.) and sophomore Ashley McKnight (Deer Creek, Ill.) return to the outfield. Sendzik finished the season hitting .306 with 40 RBIs.
The lone open defensive hole is center field, vacated by CCAC second team All-Conference selection Bethany Holaway (’13). Freshman Megan Semro (Maregno, Ill.) an IHSA all-state outfielder looks to compete for that spot immediately. Other new faces for the Tigers include catchers Kristina Shahan (Plainfield, Ill.) and Olivia Perea (Tracy, Cal.).
Weather has already wreaked havoc on Olivet’s schedule. The Tigers were to o the 2014 season on Feb. 28-Mar. 1 to face Central Methodist University (Mo.) and William Woods University (Mo.), but Mother Nature had other plans. Now the Tigers will open their 2014 season against Concordia University (Neb.) and Park University (Mo.) on Monday, March 10 as they begin a 14-game schedule at the Tucson Invitational Games in Tucson, Arizona from March 10-15.
Once back up north, the Tigers will begin the battle to reclaim the CCAC regular season and tournament titles that they held in 1012, but saw rival Saint Xavier University (Ill.) claim last season. The Cougars are NAIA pre-season ranked fifth and return their pitching duo, sisters Megan and Nicole Nonnemacher, the defending conference pitcher and freshman of the year.