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SPRING PREVIEW: Offensive improvement and solid defense may lead Juniata softball to post-season success

(Posted March 7, 2010)

Over the past few seasons, Juniata College softball has been inching its way toward the magic 30-win mark while breaking into the post-season. The 2010 campaign may be the one where the Eagles finally hit the big three-oh, led by a senior class determined to finally taste post-season success.

Juniata returns four All-Landmark Conference performers from the 2009 squad that posted a school record 24 wins, earned a berth in the Landmark Conference tournament, and earned the top seed for the ECAC South Region Tournament. This year's squad also benefits from having six seniors, four of whom are starters, giving it some proven and stable leadership.

"Defensively, we're pretty solid," said head coach John Houck, who begins his ninth season at the helm. "We've got speed and good arm strength at pretty much every position in the field."

"Offensively, we should be better than last year," said Houck. The Eagles lost a pair of quality hitters due to graduation, but added some upperclass and freshman newcomers who should more than make up the slack.

So what's left?

Pitching could be both a strong suit and a possible weakness, as Juniata heads into 2010 with only one proven and experienced collegiate pitcher. But, oh - what a pitcher she is.

Senior Alyssa Erb (Hollidaysburg, Pa./Hollidaysburg) will complete her Juniata career holding career records for wins, strikeouts, and innings pitched. That's not conjecture of what she might do this season; she held all those records at the end of 2009. Erb earned Second team All-Landmark honors last season after fanning 167 batters with a 2.37 ERA on her way to a 14-9 record. She will start game one of every doubleheader this season.

The game two start will fall to senior Stacy Nagy (Millerton, Pa./Troy), who takes up the pitching role in addition to starting game one at shortstop. Nagy is new to collegiate pitching, having last pitched at the high school level. However she has been showing steady improvement leading up the start of the season.

"The main thing will be making sure she hits her spots when she pitches, and understands the pitching strategies," said Houck.

The game strategy calls for Nagy to go only as long as needed to give Erb a break and get her back into game two in a relief role. Luckily, Erb has expected this since the beginning of the academic year, and has been preparing for the role of starter and reliever - both mentally and physically.

"She (Erb) has gotten into the best shape I've ever seen her," said Houck. "She knew she would probably be counted on for a lot of innings this year, and she has really worked hard physically to get ready."

Catching Erb and Nagy will be junior Amanda Gerlach (Mesa, Ariz./Marcos de Niza), a newcomer to the Juniata softball roster. Gerlach is a newcomer to her position as well, after playing middle infield in high school. She brings a quick bat to the order and a strong arm to the catching position, and has been working hard to learn the intricacies of her new position.

"Over the Christmas break, Amanda went to some catching camps and really fine-tuned her catching abilities. She's got a good arm and slides well to the ball," said Houck.

Senior Denalyn Spratt (Haddon Heights, N.J./Haddon Heights) gives Houck a veteran option at catcher; she saw some time behind the dish in a backup role last season. Freshman Steph Frith (Pottstown, Pa./Potts Grove) brought with her some high school catching experience, and could also see some time at that position right from season outset.

Around the infield, the Eagles will start junior Melissa Moffat (Oceanside, Calif./Oceanside) at first base. An excellent defensive first baseman will tremendous range, Moffat had just four errors at first and finished 2009 with a .985 fielding percentage. Unfortunately, she endured something of a "sophomore slump" at the plate, hitting just .194 last season after batting .313 with a .433 slugging percentage in 2008.

"Melissa's worked incredibly hard in the off-season on her hitting, and that improvement is really showing this spring," said Houck.

Sophomore Tessa Sternbach (Jersey City, N.J./Hudson County Tech) has made great strides in her fitness since the end of last season, and has looked impressive at first during pre-season. She gives the Eagles a solid backup at that position.

Juniata is looking at a very solid middle infield in Stacy Nagy at short and junior Caley McCool (Spring Mills, Pa./Penns Valley) at second base. McCool was a Second team All-Landmark honoree last season, after committing just one error - one! - in 131 chances last season. At the plate, the sharp-eyed McCool posted a .337 average last season, third among Eagle returnees, but she led all hitters in 2009 with 14 walks.

Stacy Nagy had a respectable .910 fielding percentage at short last season, and that qualified as an "off" year her. She committed 16 errors, more than her total from the previous two years combined. She is looking to regain the form of her sophomore year, when she hit .429 for the Eagles and had a .954 fielding percentage.

Sophomore Kelsey Shutt (Harrisburg, Pa./Central Dauphin) will start at the hot corner, and has flashed a solid glove during pre-season practice. When Stacy Nagy is in the circle, Shutt will move over to shortstop and will be replaced at third by senior Rachel Nagy (Nazareth, Pa./Nazareth). The softball-savvy Rachel Nagy returns to a position she played during her freshman campaign, and will start in right field when Erb is pitching.

"Rachel's very athletic, and very softball minded," said Houck. "You can put Rachel anywhere on a softball field, and she would understand the position. She's been around the game a long time, and understands the game very well."

At the plate, Rachel Nagy will graduate among the leading hitters in Juniata softball history. She has 88 career RBI, just 10 shy of a new school record. Rachel also ranks among career leaders in home runs (third with 8), doubles (third with 28), and hits (fifth with 121), and earned Second team All-Landmark honors with her 31 RBI - third among Landmark leaders - and team-leading .434 batting average. She would have led the Landmark in average as well, but a late-season injury knocked her out of the line-up and she fell below the minimum number of total plate appearances for stat leaders.

Keeping pace with Rachel Nagy's hitting accomplishments is senior leftfielder Sarah Eckard (Hollidaysburg, Pa./Hollidaysburg), whose league-leading 52 hits and a .545 slugging percentage led her to First team All-Landmark honors in 2009. Eckard brings career marks of 123 hits (fourth on the Juniata career leaderboard) and 81 runs (second) to the batting order, and has been Juniata's starter in left field for all four years of her career.

Between Eckard in left and Rachel Nagy in right will be junior Allison Gerlach (Mesa, Ariz./Marcos de Niza). Allison has all the tools to excel in her first year in a Juniata uniform, and has proven to be a disciplined hitter in pre-season workouts.

"Allison's definitely a softball player: she has the technique, the form, the arm and the bat needed to become an immediate contributor," said Houck.

When Rachel Nagy moves to third, right field responsibilities will go to senior Nicole Fronczkowski (Wilmington, Del./Mount Pleasant). Fronczkowski may be the best all-around athlete on the Juniata roster, and will be looking to close out her career with a strong performance in right.

"Nicole has waited her turn," said Houck. "She's done everything we've asked for four years, and has gotten a lot better. She's so incredibly athletic, and has all the abilities to play the position."

Freshmen Jen O'Neill (Sayville, N.Y./Sayville) and Jen Ashcraft (Bellefonte, Pa./State College Area) will provide some depth for Juniata in the outfield, as will Frith. O'Neill gives the Eagles a power hitter that has been sorely lacking from the lineup in recent seasons; she may see time in the lineup at designated player for her hitting abilities.

Juniata opens its season on Monday, March 8, when it faces Penn State Berks and the College of St. Elizabeth down in Myrtle Beach, S.C. After an eight-game, four-day tournament in Myrtle Beach, the Eagles spend all of March on the road, before making their home debut on April 3 against Drew University in a Landmark Conference series.

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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.