FOND DU LAC, Wis. (SabreAthletics.com) – The Marian University softball team made long strides a year ago under second-year Head Coach Ashley Steltenpohl and it is looking to take the next step in 2013 despite welcoming 10 newcomers to the squad. The Sabres qualified for the 2012 Northern Athletics Conference tournament as the fourth overall seed and was chosen in the 2013 Preseason Coaches' Poll to finish fourth, but Steltenpohl – now in her third year – believes the team can achieve much more.
The Sabres return just two starters from last year's team, but the crop of freshmen coming in hail from highly successful programs and are poised to contribute right away.
"Expectations of the program and where we want to be has taken a major step forward since I arrived here [in 2011]," Steltenpohl said. "I think getting to the conference tournament goes without saying. I would like to see this team finish in the top-three in the conference."
The Sabres split with the top-three teams in the ever-competitive Northern Athletics Conference a year ago, something they hadn't done since the league was established in 2007.
Emilie Jansen is the lone senior and team captain for the Sabres this season. Her 13 career home runs ranks third all-time. She needs just nine more to break the all-time mark at Marian. But more importantly, the way she brings along the freshmen will dictate the success of the Sabres in 2013.
"Her numbers speak for themselves, but she is always working hard and sets a good example for the young players," Steltenpohl said. "She is our only senior and has taken on the role to help transition the newcomers.
"She was asked to be not only a leader by example, which she has excelled at throughout her career, but also a vocal leader, which is something that is new to her and I'm happy with the way she has responded to it," Steltenpohl added.
Jansen will be the only returning infielder for the Blue and White, a second baseman and that Steltenpohl can rely on defensively.
"She's almost another coach on the field, because she is so fundamentally sound."
Freshman Amber Johnson (Franksville, Wis./Union Grove) is projected to be the Sabres' new first baseman. The Union Grove grad was a four-time All-Conference selection and led her team to a D2 state title after finishing fifth in the state with 45 RBIs as a junior.
Freshman shortstop Brie Hechimovich (Horicon, Wis./Horicon) was a three-time All-league selection at Horicon, where she led her squad to two regional titles and a sectional championship. She has very good lateral range, which enables her to cover a lot of ground. She looks to provide a consistent bat and add speed to the lineup.
Third base looks to be a competition between returning sophomore Daniele Gerth (Iron Ridge, Wis./Horicon) and freshman Bridgette Stelsel (Waupun, Wis./Waupun). Gerth's experience should serve her well, while Stelsel can show off one of the strongest arms on the team.
Freshman catcher Gabby D'Oronzo (Tinley Park, Ill./Victor J. Andrew) was a part of four conference championships in high school and led her team to an undefeated league record as a senior, batting .432 with a .568 slugging percentage. She will add stability as a sound defensive presence with a strong arm.
Emerging as her battery mate will be freshman Emily Gorges (New London, Wis./New London), who has assumed the responsibilities as team ace after showing she can be one of the hardest throwing pitchers in the conference. An all-around player, Gorges was league Player of the Year at New London for, not only her efforts in the circle, but by also contributing at the plate with five homers and 59 RBIs as a senior.
Returning sophomore Brooke Koechell (Redgranite, Wis./Wautoma) will prove to be a formidable backup option after going 4-5 in 13 appearances with a victory over defending NAC champion Benedictine. Hechimovich could also see time in the circle as a third option for Steltenpohl.
Like the infield, the outfield, too, will be young. Junior Nikki Ponticelli (Gurnee, Ill./Warren Twp.) will be the key returner at the corner spots. Meanwhile, Stelsel will show her versatility by playing some outfield, while freshman Tana Vanden Heuvel (Green Bay, Wis./East) will bring speed, power and range to the position.
Freshman Nikki Jakel (Reeseville, Wis./Waterloo) will be a five-tool threat roaming center field for the Sabres. She batted .500 with a .628 on-base percentage and .729 slugging as a senior at Waterloo a season ago, earning league Player of the Year accolades in the process.
Freshman Shannon Hofmann (North Fond du Lac, Wis./Horace Mann), Mikayla Ebben (Shiocton, Wis./Shiocton) and Nicole Tabbert (Westfield, Wis./Portage) will also see time in the field, giving Marian a deep and versatile bench.
The schedule proves just as challenging as year's past for the Sabres. They will open the season at the Finlandia Dome tournament Feb. 22-23, in Marquette, Mich., taking on the likes of UW-La Crosse, Mt. Mary and the host Lions, as well as, UW-River Falls, which finished 2012 ranked 15th in the nation.
"Our nonconference schedule will be tough, which is good for a young team to experience in preparation for the conference season," Steltenpohl said.
Marian will head down to Tucson, Ariz. March 10-14, for its annual spring trip where it will play eight games, highlighted with a match-up against Central (IA), ranked 11th-nationally in the NFCA Preseason Top-25 Poll.
The Sabres will then head to Ripon for a non-conference doubleheader March 23, before hosting Maranatha Baptist in the NAC home opener March 30.
The Crusaders will be one-of-six conference opponents the Sabres will host in 2013, which includes: Alverno (April 7), Wisconsin Lutheran (April 13), Concordia Chicago (April 20), Rockford (April 21) and Edgewood (April 24).
Marian will see a daunting road ledger, taking on the likes of Concordia Wisconsin (April 2), Dominican (April 6), Lakeland (April 10) and MSOE (April 14) before wrapping up the regular season at Benedictine (April 27) and Aurora (April 28).
The final non-conference date will be at UW-Stevens Point (April 18) in what will be a collaborative effort between both squads to raise money and awareness for breast cancer. More details on the event to follow.
"I think the league has gotten better and it will be very competitive for those six tournament spots," Steltenpohl said. "Almost every game will be a grind."
The top-six teams in accordance to conference record will qualify for the 2013 NAC tournament. The tournament is set to take place May 2-4, at Alverno Field in Milwaukee and the winner will receive the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III National tournament.