Andy Sneddon, CMUChippewas.com
MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – A championship to defend.
But first, the annual nonconference run-up during which a team evolves, questions are answered, and expectations are set and re-set.
The Central Michigan softball team opens the 2018 season on Friday with a pair of games at the Mercer Invitational in Macon, Ga. The Chippewas open at 10 a.m. against Morehead State, and are slated to play Appalachian State at 7:15 p.m.
CMU is the defending Mid-American Conference regular-season champion. The Chippewas finished 37-15 overall a year ago, including 18-5 in the MAC.
Ten things to know about the 2018 Chippewas:
1-CMU must replace graduated pitcher Rachael Knapp, who closed a brilliant career in 2017 by earning All-America Honorable Mention from Fastpitch News and MAC Pitcher of the Year honors.
2-Senior right-hander Hanna Warren ascends to the ace role. A year ago, Warren earned Second Team All-MAC honors. She ranked eighth in the MAC with a 2.52 earned run average last season.
3-While Knapp was the clearcut No. 1 last season and Warren served as the perfect complement, the pitching staff in 2018 will likely be much more balanced with the likes of Warren, Taylor Weaver, Laura Vaccaro and freshmen Cloe Mallory and Samantha Howell in the mix.
4-The Chippewa lineup returns plenty in the likes of Allison Curtis, a junior who ranked fourth in the league with a .377 batting average in 2017; Maison Kalina, who hit .338 a year ago; speedy table-setter Lacy Tolfree (17 stolen bases); and Erika Underwood, who shared the team lead in both home runs (5) and RBI (26) last season.
5-CMU also returns junior outfielder Sara Hansen, who missed all but nine games last season with an injury. She was the 2015 MAC Freshman of the Year.
6-CMU returns arguably one of the best defensive outfields in the MAC with Tolfree, Hansen and Curtis.
7-Steady veteran Rachel Vieira returns to start at second base, where she started 51 games a year ago. Also back on the infield: shortstop Morgan Gardner; Kalina, the catcher; and Underwood at first base.
8-Junior Kayla Noch, a left-side infielder, appears to have the inside track to start at third base. She will also back up Kalina behind the plate along with freshman Allena Magiera.
9-Curtis and Kalina earned All-MAC First Team honors last season, while Vieira and Warren were named to the second team. Margo Jonker, who is entering her 39th season in charge of the Chippewa program, earned the MAC Coach of the Year Award.
10-CMU will play five games in three days at the season-opening Mercer Invitational. The Chippewas are also slated to play in the Liberty Challenge in Lynchburg, Va., Feb. 16-17; the South Florida Under Armour Invitational March 2-11; and at Michigan on March 21 before their MAC opener on March 23 at Ohio. The home opener is a doubleheader with Valparaiso slated for March 27.
Quoting coach Jonker: “We spend a lot of time on the process, talking about the process, working the process. A lot of time on, ‘This is a new year;’ a lot of time on, ‘What’re we doing this year’ and a lot of time on ‘What’re we doing today.’
“There’s a lot of discussion on pitch-by-pitch, inning-by-inning, game-by-game and the rest will take care of itself. Stay in the moment. I believe this team gets it and they really want to focus on who we are today, not so much the opposition or who we were last year.”