After its most successful year in program history, softball is starting the new season with its eyes locked on an NCAA Tournament berth.
Coming off a 2019 campaign that culminated in a trifecta of program firsts – 44 wins, a share of the Atlantic 10 title and a postseason appearance – the Colonials are returning 14 members, six of which are seniors. Head coach Shane Winkler said his team is coming back with mature, experienced players who want to win the A-10 title outright.
“We accomplished so much last year, but we still feel like we left some on the table,” Winkler said. “There’s a little meat on the bone and they want to walk away with a regular-season championship and an outright championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.”
The squad was voted as co-favorites to win the conference in the preseason coaches’ poll along with fellow 2019 co-champions Fordham. GW received five first-place votes to the Rams’ three.
“The preseason poll just shows how far we’ve come because last year, half the teams in the conference voted us to not make the conference tournament,” Winkler said. “Now half the teams have voted us to compete for a championship.”
Four of the six seniors on the roster – infielders Jenna Cone and Elena Shelepak and utilities Jessica Linquist and Priscilla Martinez – appeared in at least 60 of the team’s 62 games last year.
Cone, the reigning A-10 Player of the Year, has landed herself in the program and conference record books several times in her time at GW. USA Softball named Cone to the preseason top-50 list after she ripped a conference-leading 20 home runs last year. She also holds the second and third spot on GW’s all-time home run list with 18 in her freshman season and 12 in her sophomore season, respectively.
“I know she’s the type that would trade in a lot of the things she’s done individually to win another championship,” Winkler said. “So that’s what we’re looking for more than anything.”
Despite returning its power hitters, the Colonials will be without one of its aces in the circle. The status of junior utility Sierra Lange, who started all 62 games for the Colonials in 2019, is in limbo after she sustained an injury in the fall.
“We don’t really expect her back,” Winkler said. “If we get her back late in the season, great, but we’re going to take the ones that we have. We’re excited about the growth they’ve had since the fall, and we’re excited about what they’re able to do.”
Lange pitched 272 innings for the Colonials last season, racking up 246 strikeouts and 32 complete games. Seniors utility Faith Weber and pitcher Kaitlin Buff, who pitched 80.2 innings between them in 2019, will help fill in for Lange’s productivity in the circle.
Her impact was not limited to the mound. Lange led the team and the A-10 with a .411 batting average and chipped in 39 RBIs to round out a dominant sophomore showing.
Linquist said the squad will rely on contributions from its five new freshmen to fill in roles on the team.
“We’re down Sierra in the lineup, but we still have some new people,” Linquist said. “Coach has said it before, it’s a hard lineup to get into and we have so many newcomers that are also really great at hitting. We have a lot of people in different areas that can fill different roles.”
Linquist was the only other Colonial, aside from Cone and Lange, to start all 62 games last year, leading the team with 65 runs. This year, she said her focus is squarely on repeating an A-10 champion feat and earning an automatic NCAA Tournament bid, which went to Fordham in 2019.
“To me, it feels like we half won but also half lost so that’s something that I’d want revenge for,” Linquist said. “Not necessarily against any team in particular but just something that I know we deserve and that we should be doing this year.”
The Colonials start their season in an unfamiliar setting, traveling abroad for the first time in more than 15 years. The squad will compete at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge in Mexico, facing off against Oregon, 2019 NCAA Tournament runners-up Oklahoma and BYU.
Winkler said GW earned an invitation to the tournament after making a postseason appearance at the NISC Liberty Regional last year. He added that the organizers of that competition, Triple Crown, are also the organizers of the games in Puerto Vallarta this year and asked him to bring his team.
“Being able to play Oregon and Oklahoma is pretty exciting,” freshman utility Maggie Greco said. “They’re big teams and it’s big competition. I think it’ll be a great measuring stick for where we’re going to be this season.”
GW opens its 2020 campaign against BYU in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Thursday at 11 a.m.