As a soaking rain fell onto the District Thursday, the softball team found themselves among the few braving the weather as they gathered for practice at the Mount Vernon field.
But the rain did not seem to deter the team’s spirit. The energy on the field was relaxed, with players laughing during warmups but still snapping to attention when working out.
All of this happened under the watchful eye of first-year head coach Shane Winkler, who stood along the third base line with a navy blue “GW Colonials” hoodie pulled over his head.
Last season, DeFeo led the team to a 33-21 record and a sixth-place Atlantic 10 finish. The 33 wins were a program-high, breaking the previous record set in 2016.
With the team practicing together since early September and exhibition games sprinkled throughout September and October, Winkler faces the daunting task of bettering a squad coming off a program-best year while implementing a new coaching system.
Winkler said he wants to elevate the Colonials to where they are consistently competing for a championship. GW has not reached the Atlantic 10 Championship game since 2012, when the team lost 3–2 to Massachusetts.
“We don’t feel like there are a lot of programs around the country that can say they can compete for a championship year in and year out,” Winkler said. “That’s the type of program we want to be.”
Junior utility player Jenna Cone, who powered last season’s offense behind a 35-game on-base streak, said the adjustment to a new coaching staff of Winkler and two new assistants has been positive and the team’s atmosphere compared to last season is more fast-paced and efficient, but also more upbeat.
“We love them, they’re super high energy, they’re super positive and I think that’s translating onto the field,” Cone said. “We’re a lot more positive – when we make mistakes we don’t focus on the negative aspects of internalizing it, but we focus on how to get better.”
Winkler said that as soon as he started working with the players this fall, he was immediately impressed by their infectious energy.
“You can tell right away that they wanted to work, they wanted to be pushed and they want to achieve something big,” he said.
Junior infielder Elena Shelepak said that the team’s focus during the fall has been on executing Winkler’s team-first mentality, fine-tuning basic techniques and avoiding cliques off the field. She said having strong team chemistry provides a base for a successful season.
“Once there’s one piece that’s not quite fitting in, that’s when the foundation starts to get a little shaky and things go awry,” she said.
Despite last year’s record-breaking season, the Colonials struggled to play consistently on the diamond. Shelepak said the team has been trying to remedy this by focusing on the fundamentals of the game this fall, like ground balls, fly balls and pitching mechanics.
Winkler said another important element of implementing his system has been reminding each player that this season is a clean slate and fall practices are like another set of tryouts.
“Whether you’re a returning starter, you were on the bench last year or you’re a freshman – you’re starting on the same level,” he said.
One of his biggest focuses since taking over the program has been hitting strategy because it tends to be the biggest difference between teams, he said.
Last season, the Colonials swung a .328 batting average and hit 42 home runs, 22 of which belonged to Cone and Shelepak.
“He’s bringing a whole different hitting philosophy, specifically where we’re really just getting into our legs and getting a bigger step, and I’ve been seeing the results,” Shelepak said.
During practice, Winkler said he separates his players into groups based on their hitting style to make sure he and his staff are instructing each individual member of the team in the most effective way.
On the defensive end, the team will have to readjust its pitching strategy after graduating pitcher Sarah Costlow, who started 24 matches for the Colonials last season and threw eight complete games. Costlow finished with a 10-8 record, and her 3.19 earned run average was the lowest of the team’s five rostered pitchers.
Sophomore utility player Sierra Lange – who led the team with 10 complete games – and juniors Kaitlin Buff and Faith Weber make up the returning pitching staff for this season. Freshman Megan Osterhaus will also join the rotation this fall.
Winkler said he is focused on implementing a more aggressive strategy off the rubber and wants to force opponents to create errors through consistently tough pitching.
But he said his biggest goal for the program is to dethrone the A-10 programs that have held a longstanding command over the conference, like Massachusetts and Fordham. Since 2004, either the Minutewomen or the Rams have held the A-10 title. GW has never captured the championship.
“It’s time for someone to not only step up and compete with programs like UMass and Fordham, but to really start knocking them off,” Winkler said.