NORTON, Mass. - After seeing steady improvement from her first year at the helm in 2009 through her second season last spring, Wheaton College softball head coach Rachael Powers '03 is expecting the 2011 Lyons to put themselves in position to compete for a New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) crown.
"We have a good veteran team," said Powers, who guided Wheaton to a five-win improvement from 2009 to 2010. "This should be a great bounce-back year for us, a year that we've been working toward since I started here. The returners' overall leadership and knowledge of the game is showing, so as a staff we can focus more on coaching the game and less on running all the little things."
The Lyons are coming off a season that saw them go 20-18 overall and 8-8 in the league, good for sixth place. Wheaton, which went 11-1 during its spring trip, reached the second round of the conference tournament before suffering a 3-2 setback to Wellesley College. Powers' primary goal is to return the Lyons to the league's upper echelon for the first time since 2008.
"My expectations are to finish as one of the top three teams in the conference during the regular season," said the coach. "Anything short of that will show that I don't think we did what we should have done. There are definitely some good teams in the conference, but given what we have returning combined with our six freshmen, I believe that's where we should be."
Seniors Kristen Hunt (Milford, Conn./Jonathan Law) and Rachel Merrick (Methuen, Mass./Central Catholic) return to captain the team for the second straight season, while junior Valerie Tratner (Forest Hills, N.Y./Saint Francis Prep) was selected captain for the first time.
Hunt, who recently wrapped up a four-year volleyball career, will once again get the starting nod at third base, while Merrick is slotted to start in right field. Hunt paced last year's squad with four home runs, and Merrick, who will pitch sparingly if need be, shared the team lead with nine doubles. Tratner is vying for time at third or behind the dish as catcher.
Senior Katy Salka (Ayer, Mass./Ayer) is a 2010 all-conference player after leading last year's team with a .345 batting average, 26 runs batted in and a .496 slugging percentage. She will start at shortstop for the third consecutive year. Classmate Nicole DeRosa (Greenwich, Conn./Greenwich Academy) is positioned to be Wheaton's primary catcher for the second straight season, as she batted .333 with 22 RBI and nine doubles a spring ago, while senior Marissa Hobocan (Shelton, Conn./Saint Joseph) is vying for the starting job at second base.
Joining Tratner in the junior class are Amanda Poplaski (North Reading, Mass./North Reading) and Lesley Warn (Portland, Maine/Deering). Poplaski, who batted .333 with team highs of 34 runs and 18 steals last spring, is battling for one of the remaining two outfield spots, while Warn returns to the circle after picking up 16 wins and 20 complete games a year ago.
In the Class of 2013, Megan Roy (North Dighton, Mass./Dighton-Rehoboth Regional) returns as the starting first baseman, while Amanda Drury (Tolland, Conn./Tolland) and Alanna Monahan (Dorchester, Mass./Southfield School) are competing with Poplaski for starting outfield assignments.
Rounding out the squad are freshmen Allison Baker (Orange, Conn./Amity Regional), Ashley Brillon (Attleboro, Mass./Bishop Feehan), Vanessa Campbell (Manchester, N.H./New Hampton School), Sarah Moore (Bow, N.H./Bow), Jenna Rocha (Rehoboth, Mass./Dighton-Rehoboth Regional) and Ashley Vertente (Fairhaven, Mass./Fairhaven).
Baker will share innings with Warn, Brillon could see time at first or third base, Campbell's role is still being defined after recently coming off a basketball season, Moore is in the outfield mix, Rocha is battling with Hobocan at second base and can also play at short, and Vertente is pushing DeRosa at the catcher's position. Rocha is the team's third two-sport athlete, having played field hockey in the fall.
For the first time in two decades, Wheaton will venture outside of Fort Myers, Florida, for its spring trip, as the Lyons will play a 12-game slate at the Rebel Spring Games in Kissimmee, Florida. Up north, Wheaton faces league foe United States Coast Guard Academy, which is tied for 16th in the country in the latest National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) poll, and Brandeis University, which is receiving national votes.