NAPERVILLE, Ill. — A lengthy preseason extended by multiple rainouts ends today for the Eureka College softball team.
The Red Devils are heading on the road to take on undefeated North Central (8-0) in a season-opening doubleheader at Shanower Family Field that will begin at 2 p.m.
Then, they'll turn around and host St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foe Blackburn (3-9) in a conference play-opening doubleheader at Sweitzer Field on Saturday at 12 p.m.
"At least we'll have a couple games under our belt by the time we start conference," seventh-year EC coach Debi Neff said of the circumstances. "That's a positive for us. "
THE BIG PICTURE
Last year, the Red Devils went 25-9, recording their third 25-win season of the program's modern era and second since Neff took over in 2013. Among the highlights were a 10-2 record at home, an 8-2 start to the season (their best start through 10 games since 1990) and two separate six-game winning streaks in April.
There was a lot to like in 2018. But now, there's a lot to replace. The Red Devils graduated five starters in key positions, including a First Team All-SLIAC selection in shortstop Kerrigan Dura.
It's going to take time for new faces to fill in all the gaps, so Neff is preaching patience in the season's early going.
"I feel like it's going to take a little while to jell a team together, with so many of them being new," she said. "It's going to take a lot repetition.
"The kids are working hard. Their effort has been great. They're easy to coach, they're fun to be around — I think it's just a matter of a learning curve."
Osborn, the catcher, was perfect behind the plate for EC last season, recording a 1.000 fielding percentage and slashing .346/.421/.579 at the plate with six doubles, two triples, five home runs and 25 RBI. Smith, the pitcher, went 12-3 with a save and a 2.36 ERA. She notched 53 strikeouts in 107 innings.
Sophomore Gabby Wood will be the team's other regular starting pitcher. A reliable bat for the Red Devils last year, Wood will have the opportunity to prove herself in the circle after throwing 14 2/3 innings in 2018.
At the corners, EC returns a pair of sophomores who gained a lot of experience as freshmen in Adrianna Zeman (first base) and Allison Cagley (third base), and another sophomore, Klaire Wilmot, is moving from the outfield to infield to fill the second base spot.
The rest of the squad is made up of newcomers.
Sydney Shubert, a junior transfer from Heartland Community College, has looked like a strong candidate for the center field position. Freshman Raelyn Payne, an outfielder from Lexington, Illinois, is transitioning to the infield.
Freshman Faith Bachtold, a lefty and a Prairie Central graduate, is expected to join Shubert in the outfield and be the team's third pitcher. And another junior transfer, Morgan Ledbetter (Culver-Stockton) will likely be a designated hitter and could pitch, if needed.
The weather has prevented the Red Devils from being able to prepare for the season on the dirt, so Neff says it's hard to know what to expect from the squad so early in the year.
"Right now, I'm just looking to have good fundamentals," the coach said. "Do our basics and, hopefully, win some games."
SLIAC PRESEASON POLL
A preseason poll conducted by St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference softball coaches has selected Eureka College to finish sixth in the league in 2019, the SLIAC announced in January.
Two-time defending regular-season champion Westminster was voted first with 78 points, followed by Greenville (70), Spalding and Fontbonne (62) and Webster (52). Westminster received seven of 10 first-place votes. Greenville received two and Spalding had one. Eureka had 37 points, and the bottom four teams were Blackburn (31), Iowa Wesleyan (29), Principia (15) and MacMurray (12).