NEWTON, Mass. – While the coaches across the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) picked Mount Ida College softball to finish 9th in this year's preseason poll, Head Coach Katie Zuman doesn't think that's enough credit for a team coming off back to back playoff trips that boasts five returning All-Conference selections, including First Team utiity player Hayley Microulis (Pawtucket, R.I.).
In fact, the 2016 Mustangs tied a program record with four selections to the All-GNAC teams, including returning senior pitcher Nicole Handzel (Palmer, Mass.), senior outfielder Michele MacDonald (N. Dighton, Mass.), and sophomore first baseman Kelsey Weston (Hampstead, N.H.), while 2015 All-Conference pitcher/utility Kaitlyn Muhlenforth (Bohemia, N.Y.) is also back for Mount Ida after sitting out last year with an injury.
With no graduating seniors lost last year and another year of experience under the belt of the returners, the Mustangs have made it clear that they expect to not only get back to the playoffs, but to compete for a conference championship.
The experienced senior class this year also boasts catcher Emma Morton (Winchester, Mass.), who hit .329 with four doubles, and infielder Lucianna Medici (Riverside, R.I.), a .340 hitter who stole 16 bases, both mainstays in the Mustang lineup for the last three years.
Microulis, just the second player in the program and the first since 2008 to be named to the GNAC First Team, hit .402 during the regular season and even a tick higher in conference play. Microulis was tied for seventh in the conference with ten doubles, drove-in a team-high 26 runs, and smacked the only home run of the year for the Mustangs.
One of the best leadoff players in the conference, MacDonald got on base at a .447 clip a year ago and stole 17 bases.
Handzel will front line the Mount Ida pitching corps for the final time. She broke her own program record for strikeouts in a season with 197, including a GNAC-high 135 strikeouts in conference play last year. Handzel also led the conference with 169.0 innings pitched, and posted a 2.07 earned run average, good for fourth in the GNAC. She tossed her second career no-hitter this year, threw 21 complete games, and earned nine wins and one save.
Muhlenforth, Microulis, and freshman Jessica Weiss (Great Neck, N.Y.) will take the ball for Mount Ida as well.
Even the sophomores this year come into the season with good experience. Weston was an everyday first baseman last year, hitting .321 on the way to an All-Conference selection, while Jenni Jackson (Marlborough, Mass.) took over at third base and Kristina Stella (Revere, Mass.) played both infield and outfield, appearing in 32 games.
Lexi Minicucci (Westfield, Mass.) will be back in the Mount Ida infield after sitting out the 2016 season, while this year's outfield depth will include freshmen Alisa Benson (Middletown, R.I.) and Eve Peguero (Lawrence, Mass.), junior Alexis Boswell (Amesbury, Mass.) and sophomore Kaylee Ferris (Waterbury, Vt.).
First years Rachael Hurley (Natick, Mass.), Keeliey Zompetti (Hudson, Mass.) and Grace Ryan (Livermore Falls, Maine) will look to break into the Mount Ida lineup and have an impact in their collegiate debuts.
Last season, Mount Ida (13-22, 9-13 GNAC) made the playoffs for the second straight year after the program went four years without a postseason appearance between 2010 and 2015. Their nine conference wins was the best total in the last four years, and are tied for the second best conference win total in program history.
The Mustangs will open their 2017 season on Sunday morning when they face Concordia Moorehead and Finlandia to kick off their play at the Spring Games in Florida.
Their opening game in New England comes on March 18th with a home doubleheader against Eastern Nazarene, and their GNAC debut is also at home, an April 1st showdown against Johnson & Wales.
Mount Ida ends the regular season with back to back home conference games, April 28th against Saint Joseph's (ME) and April 29th against Simmons, when they will celebrate their Senior class.