St. Olaf gearing up for spring sports season

Tennis improving, softball on playoff pursuit in optimistic spring forecast

Despite featuring no seniors this season, St. Olaf softball isn’t lacking in experience following a breakout season in which it only narrowly missed out on a postseason run in a  relatively strong MIAC, finishing fifth for its best placement in four years. A large portion of the Oles’ fast turnaround last spring was due to the emergence of a powerful dynamic duo in catcher Emily Carr ’19 and pitcher Julie Graf ’20, the former packing a strong punch at the plate and the latter absolutely dominating on the mound. Following a strong rookie campaign in 2016, Carr burst into elite status to lead the team in batting average (.404), RBI (30), hits (44) and homeruns (5). Posting a ridiculous OPS of 1.219 makes her one of the conference’s top offensive threats, and if her early 2018 results are any indication (.565 average, .630 OBP, .913 SLG), she’s only going to get better.

The same can be said for Graf, though one could make a compelling argument that it would be next to impossible to truly improve upon her stellar first season with St. Olaf. Leading the MIAC with unreal marks in ERA (0.73), total earned runs (19) and strikeouts (272, over 100 more than the next highest total), the 2017 Rookie of the Year and Pitcher of the Year emerged as the conference’s top overall ace. Crucial to the Oles’ success down the stretch, pitching in each of the team’s final 14 conference games, a victory was practically guaranteed whenever she took the mound. Thus far, Graf has picked up where she left off with a 0.53 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 26.1 innings pitched, recently crowned the MIAC Pitcher of the Week for the fifth time in barely over one season of collegiate play.

Therefore, St. Olaf possesses about as strong a core to build around as any team could possibly desire. However, depth is crucial for a serious run at the MIAC championship and is an element the Oles lacked last season. If preseason non-conference play is any indication, a talented crop of young starters could be making that essential difference in 2018. Rookie outfielder Ally Bode ’21 has made an immediate impact offensively with 11 hits in 21 at-bats to cement her role in the lineup. Veterans such as utility outfielder Alison Curry ’19 and 2B Kate Arneson ’19, who combined to go 7-for-11 over the weekend with five doubles and six runs, have clearly improved to give the Oles a superb offense. Futhermore, first year starting pitching duo Abby Grismer ’21 and Rachel Niederkorn ’21 combined for two earned runs in 8.1 innings of work over the weekend. If they can continue their early success on the mound, St. Olaf will feature a strong rotation to support Graf and make an honest bid at the conference title. Early indications are encouraging – Ole softball is the team to watch this spring, with expectations for a high conference placement.

Their male counterparts on the diamond are also looking to improve after a tenth place finish last season, though St. Olaf baseball will be far more reliant on its younger members to form a foundation rather than building upon one that already exists.

Offensively, the Oles actually fared quite nicely during an otherwise disappointing 2017 campaign, posting a .287 team batting average and placing fourth in the conference with a .380 collective OBP and 141 walks. Shortstop Dylan Blake ’20 led the charge at the plate during an excellent first season, placing first on the team in average (.349) and hits (51) to give St. Olaf a consistent method of setting the table and delivering clutch base hits when necessary. Veteran catcher Jake Ossell ’19 provided more power when necessary, slugging .449 and leading the team with 25 RBI, while 1B Luke Dahl ’19 rounded out the lineup with impressive production across the board (.330 average, .853 OPS). With all these solid players returning, if the several fresh faces on the starting roster can carry their weight at the plate, the Oles could quietly post one of the MIAC’s more consistently dangerous lineups, though they must improve their lackluster baserunning efficiency from a year ago to further maximize their offensive potential.

All the runs in the world hardly matter when your pitching staff isn’t up to snuff, and this is the exact issue that plagued St. Olaf baseball last spring. Starting pitcher Jake Mathison ’18 has been a consistently solid starter during his Ole tenure, posting a 2.31 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 2017 for a producive season, but the severe lack of depth behind him isn’t doing St. Olaf any favors. The Oles limped to a 5.22 team ERA last spring, the third worst total in conference and over two runs higher than the 2017 MIAC leader (Bethel, 3.13). Mathison performed admirably for 70 total innings and ten starts, but no other pitcher on the team started above seven games or pitched more than 41.2 frames. Of those who started at least three games on the mound, only one produced an ERA under 5.00 (Jesse Retzlaff ’20, 4.93 ERA). That simply isn’t going to cut it if St. Olaf wants to seriously contend in a powerhouse MIAC that only featured one team hitting below a .283 collective average one season ago.

Thus far in 2018, the story has been largely the same – Mathison has pitched for 11 of St. Olaf’s 20 total innings, and most of the other pitchers don’t look like viable starters. A solid relief outing from Max Marshall ’20 (4.1 innings pitched, no earned runs) against Northwestern (Minn.) is slightly more encouraging, but the general dearth of rotation depth still looks to be a problem. That will have to change if the Oles hope to have a chance.

Men’s tennis may have underperformed with a 1-8 MIAC record and last place finish in 2017. However, with an abnormally young and inexperienced roster (70 percent being first years or sophomores), it was expected that a developmental season was in the cards before last spring even began. However, this season we should start to see more positive results from a team that typically embodies consistency – 2017 was the first instance since 2010 in which the Oles didn’t finish fourth or higher in conference. Already possessing a solid leadership foundation in veterans Christian Beck ’18 and Danny Hogan ’18, St. Olaf should see more success with the emergence of younger players that have already demonstrated immense improvement from a season ago. Especially encouraging is a 5-4 team victory against Bethel, a MIAC playoff team from last season, to begin 2018, with individual victories coming from first years Jack Leach ’21 (7-5, 6-0) and Spencer Wick ’21 (7-5, 3-6, 1-0).

A convincing 9-0 loss against 2017 undefeated conference champion Gustavus quickly humbled the Oles with some perspective, but early signs are still encouraging. The ceiling is limited, but St. Olaf should be back among the MIAC’s mid-tier teams in 2018, much improved from last spring.

Much the same can be said for women’s tennis, trying to rebound from an uncharacteristicaly poor 2-8 conference record in 2017. The strong veteran combination of Margaret Zimmermann ’18 and Erin McDonald ’18 return for their final season, accompanied by potential breakout star Sabrina Barboza ’21, who defeated St. Catherine all-MIAC ringer Bri Dorr ’20 to secure a clutch 5-4 team victory over a 2017 playoff team. If Barboza can build upon this early upset, the Oles will have a formidable front trio that can match nearly any MIAC competition. Depth remains a concern, and a 1-8 loss against Bethel brings up some red flags, but St. Olaf should escape the conference cellar with a much improved and experienced roster that could even sneak into the postseason.