PARKLAND – The Pacific Lutheran softball team is finishing up preseason practices this weekend as the Lutes prepare to head to Texas to open the 2016 season with a talented mix of youth and experience.
Going into head coach Lance Glasoe's second season at the helm, the Lutes will look to build on the experiences they gained during a 2015 season that finished with eight wins in the final 10 games and a 23-17 overall record.
"We have a really good blend of some veteran players who have been here awhile and gone through the ropes and a good group of young players who will have an opportunity to impact our program pretty positively," Glasoe said. "We're still probably classified as a young team, but I think with our experiences last year we've aged pretty well. So I think we're in pretty good position overall with the makeup of the team."
That makeup consists of 14 returners and nine newcomers. However, only two of those 14 returners are seniors, as Kelli Crawford and Alison Behrends each enter their fourth season with the program. Glasoe expects that duo to play a key role – particularly early in the season – in helping establish a team identity.
"The leadership we have with Kelli and Alison is really going to help guide us through this year," Glasoe said. "They've been three years through the ringer of the conference schedule and have traveled a lot with the team, so we'll rely on them to lead."
Marissa Miller returns as the team's top pitcher after throwing a team-high 127.1 innings during her freshman season. That early experience in her first season should pay off as she ranked sixth in the Northwest Conference in innings pitched last season.
"Marissa had a good freshman year, kind of a growing year, and took a lot of innings for us," Glasoe said. "I think physically she's more prepared this year, and I know mentally she's more prepared."
Meanwhile Elli Rassbach was the Lutes' batting average leader last season at .351 while playing 35 games in the field. She'll transition into a pitching role to complement her offense, as she'll open the season as the Lutes' second starter.
"She's going to take on a bigger role this year in the circle as a pitcher," Glasoe said of Rassbach. "She pitched in high school and through club, so she'll have a bit of that role for us this year, and offensively she did a great job last year. Last year she could have pitched for us, but we needed her offensively and defensively to fill a different role for us. But she'll do really well for us this year."
Another shift will be that of Emily McConnell from the infield to the outfield for her junior season. McConnell was one of PLU's top hitters last season with a team-best 54 total bases and 10 doubles while driving in 25 runs and batting .333 with three home runs.
"Emily's going to do a lot of good things for us this year," Glasoe said. "She moved from the infield to the outfield, and I think she's really going to shine in the outfield."
Thalen Masada started every game but one for the Lutes last season and led the team with 14 stolen bases while batting .316. She'll return this year alongside fellow juniors Kailyn Osaki and Jessica Wallace. Osaki started 38 games in the infield and batted .291, while Wallace was the Lutes' primary catcher with 28 starts.
Along with that strong returning corps, the Lutes boast nine newcomers that will compete for playing time right away. Among those is a pair of transfer students, with NCAA Div. I transfer Nichole Schroeder coming to PLU from Long Island University Brooklyn for her junior season and Annalise Campbell coming from Puget Sound.
"Nichole transferring in helps us a lot as a junior with some Division I experience, that will help us a bunch," Glasoe said. "And Annalise has a lot of high-level experience, so I think she'll fit in well."
Kathryn Hatlen will likely serve as the Lutes' third pitcher to start the year, and like Miller last season, Glasoe expects Hatlen to adapt well to the college game in her first season.
"She pitched in high school and club and has a good presence about her in the circle, so I think even though she's a freshman she'll adjust pretty quickly to pitching here," Glasoe said.
Fellow newcomers Bailey Plumb, Anna Overland, Kayla Russell, Hope Jones, Becca Sorensen and Delaney Salter will also have a chance to contribute early and often as PLU prepares for Northwest Conference play.
"Everybody that's new to the program is going to have an opportunity to help us win right away, so that's a really good thing," Glasoe said.
The Lutes have a tough early schedule with a trip to Texas next week. They'll open the season with a doubleheader at LeTourneau on Tuesday, follow that with games at Texas-Tyler Wednesday and East Texas Baptist Friday before closing out the trip Saturday, Feb. 6, with a doubleheader against Texas-Dallas.
"We're going to play six games over six days, so it's a tight schedule," Glasoe said. "We're playing some nationally-ranked teams that went to the postseason last year, so I think we're going to see a really good level of competition in Dallas and with all the challenges of practicing outside in January, it will be really good to get out on the dirt and compete with some teams that are at the level we want to reach."
From there the Lutes will head to Arizona to play four straight against Benedictine on Feb. 12-13. With the Northwest Conference transitioning to four-game series against one team each weekend rather than the separate doubleheaders of past seasons, Glasoe hopes the Benedictine series will help prepare the Lutes for the challenges of that series structure.
"We scheduled them specifically because they wanted to play a four-game series, so the back-to-back doubleheaders will be a good start to show us what it will be like for a normal weekend when we get to conference play," Glasoe said. "If we can learn how to manage that part of it with a common opponent and staying engaged when it's the same team you've played each time and making adjustments is what we're hoping to gain from that trip."
Conference play opens for the Lutes Feb. 27-28 with four games against Pacific in Forest Grove, Ore., before PLU plays its home-opening series against Lewis & Clark the following weekend. Last season the top three teams in the conference were separated by two games in the standings, and only five games separated the top team and the No. 5 Lutes. Glasoe expects the new structure and the balance of the league to again lead to a tight conference race.
"I think the conference is really competitive," Glasoe said. "I think the new format may see a win-loss percentage a little lower than we've seen in the past for the top teams. I think it's going to be a fight every weekend, and it's going to be a tough conference."