When Elon University head softball coach Kathy Bocock looks around the field, she finds a lot of familiar faces.
And, as the Phoenix enters its third season in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), Bocock feels confident in the team’s familiarity with each other and the expectations needed.
“I am very fortunate this year that I only have four newcomers," Bocock said. “The upperclassmen have experience within themselves. They know it’s a whole new season. They also know that other teams are preparing as well.”
But with Elon returning its top five hitters — all everyday starters — as well as most of its starting rotation, there’s reason for Elon to feel confident after reaching the CAA tournament last year. But senior outfielder Alaina Hall feels like Elon will improve on its quick exit from the tournament.
“Sometimes, it’s just not your time. Last year, it happened to be not our time,” Hall said. “We got to the conference tournament, but we just weren’t Elon softball.
“We know that, when we get there again, we’re going to dominate. We learn from the past and learn from the mistakes we made last year and take it to them.”
Hall’s outfield mate, junior Kara Shutt, returns after a record-setting sophomore year. The Greensboro native broke a single-season school record by hitting 21 doubles and hit .399 on the season, good for second in the CAA and second in the school’s Division I era. Hall was no slouch herself, batting .331 from the leadoff spot.
Elon also returns junior infielder Hannah Olson, who hit tied for the team-high with five home runs from the second spot, and senior catcher Emily Roper, who hit .308 and had a team-high 31 runs batted in the middle of the order.
Bocock feels that the Phoenix can be a major threat offensively.
“We’ve had a lineup that’s been pretty consistent and are used to each other,” Bocock said. “They know where their skills are at. We’re very fortunate to have the offense that we have. If they’re all on together, it could be scary.”
With so many players returning from last year’s roster, Bocock says balancing playing time and rest will be key.
“I need to keep them healthy,” Bocock said. “Fifty-six games is a lot of games. We have really worked with everybody. If we get the lead and feel comfortable, we can move them in and out. Even though I know the starters want to be out there, it’ll give me an opportunity to give them a rest so they can stay healthier and stay more game-ready.”
Elon’s schedule for 2017 will see the Phoenix staying at Hunt Softball Park more often, with 30 home games currently on the schedule. Shutt appreciates the change, acknowledging that Elon went 17-7 in 2016 at home and 20-6 in 2015.
“I love playing at home,” Shutt said. “I’m a local resident, so I love when my family gets to come out and watch. Also, statistically, we play better at home.”
Shutt said she hopes Elon could win 22 of its 30 home games in 2017, a number Bocock seemed pleased with. But the coach was quick to point out the importance of trying to balance its schedule.
“We have been pretty successful at home and we play well here, but something our girls talk about is that we need to do better on the road,” Bocock said. “We want road games so when it comes time for conference play, we can do well on the road as well.”
Elon will take place in the University of Florida’s Citrus Classic tournament in Orlando, Florida for the third-straight year, and the Phoenix played the No. 1 ranked Gators to a competitive 3-1 loss last year. In addition, the Phoenix will face six different Atlantic Coast Conference schools throughout the season, playing a total of eight games against those schools.
But in the CAA stands perennial power James Madison University, a team that’s been to the NCAA tournament four times in a row and finished 2016 as the No. 7-ranked team in the country, hosting a Super Regional. Leading the Dukes is junior pitcher Megan Good, who was named to the USA Softball Player of the Year watch list last week.
The Dukes lost only one game to a conference opponent last year, and Elon remembers it quite well. The Phoenix beat James Madison 5-4 in 15 innings, riding the arm of pitcher Kayla Caruso ’16 all the way to victory in the marathon. Hall feels like Elon can find confidence in the fact they’ve defeated the Dukes before.
“JMU is an amazing team and we have beaten them. That technically qualifies us as amazing, too,” Hall said. “I feel like we have the bats and the pitching. If we can keep our eye on the prize and not get overwhelmed by all the commotion about them and how good they are, we can beat them. We’ve shown it once and we can do it again.”
Shutt added, “I don’t think they will be the same team they were last year. If we play our best we have a good chance to beat them.”
Elon’s season will be long set by the time the Phoenix travels to Harrisonburg to face the Dukes in May.
But despite being picked fifth in the conference, Elon is planning on having to make a return trip to Harrisonburg, Virginia the next weekend for the CAA championship tournament.