Spring sports anticipating resurgent seasons

After going 11-26 last spring, St. Olaf baseball enters this season ranked ninth out of 11 MIAC teams according to preseason coaches polls, and it is looking to reverse its recent fortunes by achieving its first win-loss record above .500 since the 2010 season. While the unimpressive record from a year ago may project a dismal forecast for 2017, it’s important to recognize that the Oles were undergoing a transitional season, with a good portion of their raw talent resting with underclassmen. Fortunately, those players dazzled in their first year at St. Olaf, most notably Joe Keiski ’19, who led the team with a .388 batting average while mashing three homeruns and 26 RBI, and Sam Stuckmeyer ’19, who led the team with 38 RBI, topped the conference with seven homeruns and posted a .629 slugging percentage. Both of these sophomores were named All-Conference following last season and form the core of a young Ole squad featuring 19 first-years and only two seniors.

Two notable victories stand out from last spring. Although the Oles finished last in the MIAC, they were able to score a win against third-place finisher Saint John’s and, most notably, a huge upset over conference champion and longtime heavyweight St. Thomas, demonstrating the explosive latent potential this young St. Olaf team possesses. If they can build on those brief flashes of brilliance, the Oles could surprise as a dark horse contender this spring. They’ll have to be ready right out of the gates, as they immediately face their biggest challenge, traveling to preseason favorite St. Thomas for their first conference games of the season on April 1. The Tommies will be eager and motivated to avenge their loss from last spring – this is when we’ll find out whether the 2017 Oles are another young transitional team or a legitimate playoff sleeper.

For the first time in 12 seasons, Ole softball is under new leadership. After longtime head coach Ruthie Neuger decided to step away from St. Olaf, Kayla Hatting was hired in June to bring a newly energized direction to a team that has only managed a meager .343 win percentage during the last three seasons combined. Fortunately, this decision seems to be paying dividends – through four games, the Oles are 3-1 with a +28 run differential. St. Olaf has also demonstrated that it can perform in the clutch, coming from behind in the final inning against UW-La Crosse to earn a 4-3 victory.

Two-time All-Conference veteran Jessica Bentley ’18 returns with high expectations after leading the team in nearly every hitting category, posting a .361 batting average, 24 RBI and a .937 OBP while drawing 11 walks in 2016. Emily Carr ’19 burst onto the scene as a star for the Oles last season with stats comparable to Bentley’s, including a .321 batting average and a .825 OBP, forming a formidable duo at the plate that should have opposing pitchers shaking in their cleats. Both have started at a torrential pace in 2017 – Carr in particular has impressed with an explosive start, showing that her strong freshman campaign was no fluke. Combined with the emergence of several underclassmen, particularly Julie Graf ’20, who has pitched 14 consecutive scoreless innings to start the season while holding opposing batters to a pitiful .067 batting average, this young team looks ready to make some noise in the MIAC. Preseason coaches polls ranked St. Olaf as ninth overall in the conference, but together, under Hatting’s new leadership, they look to be changing that perception.

Meanwhile, men’s tennis is looking to reverse a concerning trend that has seen its overall win percentage dip from .625 in 2014 down to .500 in 2016, a season that ended with the team finishing outside the top four in the MIAC for the first time since 2010. The Oles will be led by a pair of All-Conference juniors in Christian Beck ’18, who posted a 11-4 record in singles last season while amassing 12 victories in doubles, and Danny Hogan ’18, who was recognized for his notable achievements in doubles. Nearly half of the 2016 team is gone, meaning underclassmen must step up if St. Olaf is to get back on track. Endurance is the key – last spring the Oles dropped four of their final five series of matches, all of which came against conference opponents, including a brutal 8-1 loss against Bethel during the season finale. Running out of steam during the most critical stretch of the season crippled the Oles’ playoff hopes. A similar stretch in April against four MIAC rivals will likely dictate whether St. Olaf has the depth and durability to keep up with the conference, or if this is merely a developmental season for the young players to gain experience and confidence.

Alternatively, St. Olaf women’s tennis has been the shape of consistency, having reached the postseason every season for over a decade. 2016 was no exception – the Oles finished with a .667 winning percentage and a 7-3 conference record for the second consecutive spring, ousting Bethel in the first round of playoffs before succumbing to top-seeded rival Carleton in the MIAC semifinals. Losing veteran leaders Alisa Hall ’16 and Maya McGibbon ’16, both All-Conference athletes, hurts, but the star-studded nucleus of this team remains intact.

Margaret Zimmermann ’18 enters her junior season already having dominated much of the competition, posting a 12-3 record in singles last spring. Wasting no time, Zimmermann has started exceptionally in 2017, winning all three of her conference matches so far without dropping a single set, which is also true of fellow teammates Sophia Skoglund ’18 and, with the lone exception of one lost set against Hamline, Kellis Brandt ’19. These three undefeated Oles, along with star veteran Erin McDonald ’18, give St. Olaf the necessary depth to compete in a stacked conference. The Oles enter the preseason polls ranked fifth in the MIAC, for good reason – it would be ignorant to assume that women’s tennis, the epitome of stability across all St. Olaf team sports throughout recent years, couldn’t repeat their success and make another playoff run in 2017.

Speaking of consistency, men’s track and field has finished in the top four of the MIAC during the outdoor track and field championships in May for four consecutive seasons, and there’s little reason to expect that to suddenly change in 2017. Following a second-place finish at the winter indoor conference championships this past weekend, the Ole men boast a deep roster headlined by Joe Coffey ’17, the 2016 MIAC cross country champion who currently holds the top time for the mile this season among all NCAA Division III runners (4:08.02).

Women’s track wasn’t quite as successful at the indoor championships, finishing seventh overall. However, they still feature plenty of young depth that should continue to ascend to new heights this spring, including Mary Naas ’19, who finished second in the 5,000 meter run over the weekend, and Abbey Stets ’18, who came in third in the 400 meter dash.

Overall, this spring should provide a plethora of excitement as several young Ole teams look to take their ability to the next level and overcome tremendous adversity in a strong conference across all sports.