NORTON, MA- As a former Wheaton College softball player, second-year head coach Rachael Powers '03 has plenty of incentive in trying to return the program to its former status as a New England power, but the question remains how to do so. In her third year on the staff, Powers has seen a solid corps of leaders emerge, while Powers herself has altered her coaching style.
"I'm learning what has worked for me in the past as a player and a coach might not work for the team," said Powers, who is instructing players more on an individual basis than preaching a program-wide philosophy. A former three-year all-region player, Powers' first season as head coach ended with Wheaton 15-23 overall and 6-10 in the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC). It was the first time the Lyons, who went to seven NCAA Tournaments between 1997 and 2004, missed the league tournament. "Making the postseason is absolutely a must," she said. "Missing it last year should add fuel to the fire of the upperclassmen."
Senior pitcher Andrea Bagley (Foxboro, MA/Foxboro) is the lone member of the Class of 2010 on the 16-player roster, as five players apiece hail from the junior, sophomore and freshman classes. Powers expects the junior contingent to take charge of the squad, and she hopes they drive the team toward a deep postseason run before graduating.
Powers is joined on her staff by 15th-year assistant coach Bob Roscoe and first-year staff members Sarah Campbell and Erin Fuoroli. Campbell and Fuoroli were teammates at regional power Keene State College, where Campbell played the infield and Fuoroli pitched and played outfield.
"The coaching staff approached this season differently than in the past," said Powers. "We used to do a lot of cardio and conditioning at the beginning of practice, but now we've flipped it and are doing it at the end, just to try to stay strong at the end of games." Powers said more emphasis has also been put upon the players working on defense at their individual positions, as well as the athletes becoming accustomed to the teammates with whom they will most likely work during games.
A critical place Powers saw room for improvement was on the defensive side, and she hopes an infield that could have juniors at four positions, including behind the plate, steps up and leads the way. With Bagley limited during the preseason and sophomore hurler Lesley Warn (Portland, ME/Deering) throwing during the vast majority of practice and early-season games, Powers also expects the defense to cut down on its mistakes so Warn can limit her pitch count.
Also the field hockey team's lone goalkeeper, Bagley stands fourth in program history in career strikeouts after fanning 96 batters in 2009, when the righty completed 12 games. Warn, who is also a righty, made eight starts as a freshman but only 14 appearances due to various setbacks.
When it comes to scoring runs, Powers expects speed to play a key role this spring. "Offensively, we're a little faster than we were last year," said Powers, "and I'm hoping our short game will be better so we can extend games."
Leading the way among the juniors are the squad's two captains, Kristen Hunt (Milford, CT/Jonathan Law) and Rachel Merrick (Methuen, MA/Central Catholic). Hunt, who also plays volleyball for Wheaton, hit .319 with 17 runs batted in last year. She looks to start at third base but could appear elsewhere in the infield and outfield. After drawing only one at bat during the Lyons' first 14 games of 2009 due to injury, Merrick settled in as the starting right fielder, providing 17 hits. She could appear either in the middle infield or outfield.
Junior Nicole DeRosa (Greenwich, CT/Greenwich Academy) was injured for the final 10 contests of her sophomore year following a season in which she blasted seven home runs, one short of the program's freshman mark. She will serve as the primary catcher and provides outfield depth. Classmate Marissa Hobocan (Shelton, CT/Saint Joseph) started 36 games at second base last year, as her 14 sacrifice bunts tied for second in school history, and she can also play the outfield. After being limited by injury to just nine plate appearances as a freshman, junior Katy Salka (Ayer, MA/Ayer) rebounded by hitting .309 with eight doubles as the starting shortstop in 2009. The natural left-handed hitter is expected to return to that position and also receive some at bats as the designated player.
Sophomore Amanda Poplaski (North Reading, MA/North Reading) swiped 13 bases while hitting .364 last spring but batted only once over the final nine games due to injury. The lefty hitter is in contention to become just Wheaton's second starting center fielder since 2007. After being injured in the fall, classmate Valerie Tratner (Forest Hills, NY/Saint Francis Prep) returns after committing only two miscues at third base in 19 contests as a freshman. Tratner will also provide defensive depth at catcher, earning spot starts as DeRosa's backup.
Injuries limited sophomore Emily O'Connell (Kennebunk, ME/Kennebunk) to 18 at bats in 2009, and she made the most of those opportunities with six hits. O'Connell could see time among infielders or outfielders, while classmate Staley Salazar (Lakewood, CO/Bear Creek) is expected to be in the mix to contribute in the outfield. The left-handed hitter saw action in 31 contests last season.
Among Wheaton's five freshmen, Megan Roy (North Dighton, MA/Dighton-Rehoboth Regional) has nailed down the starting first base job and looks to provide a solid bat in the middle of the order, while Amanda Drury (Tolland, CT/Tolland) provides speed and a lefty stick to the lineup and will battle Poplaski for the center field assignment. Brittany Calarese (Norwood, MA/Norwood) will see time in the middle infield and outfield, Renee Laflam (Concord, NH/Concord) is a first baseman and an outfielder, while Alanna Monahan (Dorchester, MA/Southfield School) caught and played shortstop in high school but will lend her raw athleticism to the outfield.
Wheaton broke from intrasquad games and practices for a pair of recent indoor scrimmages against local schools, providing the Lyons their first glimpse into how they stack up against outside competition. One of Wheaton's foes was 2009 NCAA Tournament qualifier Emerson College, which was ranked 19th in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) preseason poll. With a 12-game stretch at the Gene Cusic Collegiate Classic beginning on March 13, the Lyons head to Fort Myers, Florida, for spring break for the 19th consecutive season.
"After spending all winter playing against teammates, you know what level you're at, but then it's completely different when you play competition," said Powers, whose squad competes in a conference that accepts six teams into a double-elimination tournament that begins April 21. "I was looking forward to playing those scrimmages and seeing what happened, but Florida is where we'll test the waters to begin preparing for the rest of our season, and most importantly our NEWMAC schedule. We want to be prepared for NEWMAC games because if we don't win the tournament we're not going anywhere."
Once north, Wheaton plays 26 contests against New England squads, including six that went to the 2009 NCAA Tournament. Among them, three were ranked in the preseason poll, and Powers expects a difficult non-league ledger to prepare her team for league play. "Keeping that schedule is only going to help us, but we need to fight through some of the tough games and know they will help us in the long run," said the coach. "I think it's great because to be the best you have to play the best."