When Elon University head softball coach Kathy Bocock told her players that the school had been selected to host the Colonial Athletic Association softball tournament, she was met with enthusiasm. However, she was quick to remind her team that just because the school will host, they’re not guaranteed to qualify.
“I remember their faces when they found out and how excited they were,” Bocock said. “I told them, ‘Listen. We're hosting, but keep in mind only five teams make it. No pressure.’”
Last month, the conference announced the relocation of May’s softball championship from James Madison University to Elon University after James Madison announced it would leave the CAA for the Sun Belt beginning next season. This will be Elon’s first time hosting the event.
Only the top five finishers in the CAA regular season standings will qualify for the tournament. Bocock said she knows making it into the tournament will not be easy, but that it will be rewarding to see the school host, regardless of if the Phoenix qualify.
“They’re going to have to work really hard to make sure we’re there,” Bocock said. “I’m just so excited for our whole program, the alumni, the players now and the players to come in the future.”
Junior and team co-captain Megan Grant said the potential of playing de facto home games in the conference tournament has inspired the team, and she believes the goal of qualifying for the championship will help them dig deeper than in previous years.
“It hits home for you,” Grant said. “It does because you just have that power to push even further at times when it might not feel like you can.”
Balancing youth and experience
The Phoenix welcomed seven freshmen to this year’s roster, but there are many returning core players from last season.
Among the team’s key returning position players are Grant, senior outfielder and co-captain Rebecca Murray, junior infielder and co-captain Carley Davis and sophomore infielder Gabi Schaal.
While the Phoenix have much of its hitting production back, Grant said she believes the team’s four freshmen hitters will make an immediate impact.
“I'm very excited about our freshmen,” Grant said. “They are bringing a bunch of new tools and mindsets to the game and it's … very great to see us all work together.”
Despite losing Kenna Quinn, the team’s top pitcher from last season, the Phoenix return a strong pitching staff. Graduate student Alexa Nemeth, redshirt senior McKenzie Weber, senior co-captain Katie Hoover and junior Caitlin King are all back after seeing significant playing time in 2021.
Bocock said she also expects contributions this season from her three freshman pitchers — Isley Duggins, Taylor Cherry and McKenna McCard — and believes the balance and variety of pitch types possessed by this year’s staff could be a strong point for the team.
“What's so neat about this group is if one throws a certain type of pitch, we’ve got another one that can come in and offset them,” Bocock said. “If we have speed, we have somebody that can come in and throw off speed and that's kind of huge for softball.”
Rejuvenated mentally and physically
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it has been difficult for the team to stay in peak physical shape with protocols always changing the team’s schedule, Bocock said.
“Trying to stay in shape and really get back to where we once were was a big drive for me,” Bocock said. “I wanted to make sure that we did that.”
After spending a few seasons working with Elon’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, sports performance coach Cameron Ringstead is back working with the softball team on strength and conditioning. According to Bocock, the reunion is already paying dividends.
“This is the best I’ve seen my team in shape in quite a few years,” Bocock said.
The team has also focused on becoming stronger mentally after a pair of challenging seasons heavily impacted by COVID-19. While the team’s routine is not yet where it was pre-pandemic as players and coaches must still abide by the University’s indoor mask mandate, Grant said the team has a much healthier mindset compared to last season.
“This year, we've really come out attacking it compared to last year,” Grant said. “Last year, there was just so much uncertainty and hesitation about … what's going to happen with this game, what's gonna happen with this practice, if somebody gets COVID, and this year, it's kind of been a little freer in that way.”
Elon opens its season on Friday, Feb. 11, with a game against the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Jaguars. The team will play a strong non-conference schedule with games against Atlantic Coast Conference foes such as the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on Feb. 16, Duke University on Feb. 23 and North Carolina State University on Mar. 2, as well as three clashes against Michigan State University on March 4, 5 and 13 from the Big Ten Conference.
“We’re going to have a very competitive out of conference to really prepare for our conference,” Bocock said. “I like doing that because I'm not afraid to go up against anybody and our girls know when we take the field, it doesn't matter who we're playing, we believe that we can win.”
Bocock said the CAA season will feel much more normal compared to last year, when the Phoenix did not play all of the teams in the league due to COVID-19. Grant, who has not experienced a full conference schedule since she arrived at Elon, said she’s looking forward to the normal conference slate.
“I’m excited to play teams that I haven’t played and compete with them,” Grant said. “I'm just looking forward to going out there, and giving it all I have, and being on a true, real schedule now, and being able to compete the way we're supposed to.”