The latest as SIUE begins the 2018 season Friday at the Trojan Classic in Troy, Alabama, is the start of Head Coach Sandy Montgomery leading the Cougars for her 30th season.
From day one as the head coach and 1,026 victories later, three things always have been true for a Montgomery-led team. Minimize mistakes. Players who hit will have a spot in the lineup. Strong practice performance can turn into starting opportunities.
"I think we've got a lot of good young players, and all of them will be competing for playing time," said Montgomery.
SIUE, which has advanced to the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game in each of the last four seasons, begins play at 9 a.m. Friday against Valparaiso followed by a 2 p.m. contest against Alabama State. The Cougars face host Troy Saturday with a second meeting with Alabama State and Valparaiso later on.
Like every other season, Montgomery has developed a squad that has versatility. That versatility starts with the pitching staff.
Senior Ashley Koziol (Willow Springs, Illinois) returns for her third season in the circle. Sophomore Emily Ingles (Scottsdale, Arizona) is coming off an initial OVC campaign in which she was named to the OVC All-Newcomer Team. Sophomore Abby Marlow (New Athens, Illinois) aims for time in the circle this season. Freshman Corrina Rivas (Duncan, Oklahoma) begins her first season with high hopes.
"For all of our pitchers, command is the biggest thing," said Montgomery. "We've got to minimize mistakes, be able to set up hitters and throw purpose pitches to keep us in ball games. Hopefully, they'll be able to do that and get better as the year goes on."
Montgomery admitted she will utilize her pitching staff to its fullest potential. That could mean bullpen by committee or depending on the starter to go the distance. All four pitchers have different styles and will depend on different pitches to get the upper hand.
"The pitching staff is going to have to step up," she added. "All four have an upside."
Having a strong receiver on the end of those pitches also is important. Montgomery has several options, including senior Tess Eby (Grapevine, Texas) and sophomores Sydney Bina (Washington, Illinois) and Kalei Kaneshiro (Pearl City, Hawaii).
"It will depend on the team we are playing," Montgomery said, noting her catching depth. "What we need from the catcher position is leadership. That's always key back there."
Montgomery sees the catching position as a key to the development of the pitching staff.
"With a young pitching staff, you have to have someone who is going to run the show," she said. "They have to keep the defense focused on running the defensive sets we're trying to run."
The Cougars will have numerous options when setting up the defensive lineup on the infield.
Zoe Schafer (Noblesville, Indiana) returns for her second season in the lineup at first base. She batted .311 last season and was named to the OVC All-Newcomer team.
"She again has to continue progress at hitting at a high level and learn how to be consistent with her swing no matter how she is feeling," said Montgomery. "Even if she gets out a few times, she can't let that get the best of her. It's all a growing process from a hitting standpoint."
Three freshmen will vie for spots on the middle infield: Bailley Concatto (Cumming, Georgia), Jill Niehaus (Mt. Olive, Illinois) and Alana Cobb-Adams (Kapolei, Hawaii). All three can play both positions. Niehaus and Cobb-Adams also can play other positions.
Talisa Morton (Fenton, Missouri), a senior, also will be in the mix on the infield after she battles back from a preseason injury. The Cougars also will look to infielder Maria Prete (Westmont, Illinois) in key situations.
One position is third base where Montgomery sees as an important piece in the defensive puzzle.
"That's an important position for us, working on minimizing the short game against us," said Montgomery. "That's always a variable. But offensively, we have to be able to hit."
Senior Haley Adrian (Auburn, Alabama) and Kaneshiro have notable experience at the third base for the Cougars.
Montgomery is excited for the return of Alyssa Heren (Saline, Michigan) to the lineup. She was sidelined with an injury this past summer and fall.
"She's not a 100 percent yet but pretty close," said Montgomery. "She can run down any ball in the outfield so it's tough not to have her out there."
The Cougar junior has 14 career home runs in her first two seasons and is a two-time All-OVC performer. Heren hit .335 last season, mostly in the leadoff role.
"With Heren being back in the lineup, it's pretty hard to put anybody else in center field if she's healthy," added Montgomery.
Reagan Curtis (Helena, Alabama) returns as the Cougars' right fielder. The sophomore collected 12 doubles in her first season.
"She has gotten into great shape this season," said Montgomery. "She's stronger. She's faster. I see a lot of good things from her."
Eby was the starting left fielder at the end of last season. The senior has 11 home runs in three seasons to go along with 63 runs batted in. She has been a mainstay in the middle of the Cougar lineup.
Montgomery also has several other players working hard for an opportunity, including sophomores Conner Cutright (Casey, Illinois) and Marlow.
Janie Smith (Wheaton, Illinois) also returns as a true utility player. Montgomery has utilized Smith as a key pinch runner. Last season, she stole 20 bases and scored 26 runs in 49 games played.
For Coach Montgomery, moving into the lineup and staying in the lineup will depend on how well a player hits.
"It's a matter of who is seeing the ball and swinging the bat and committing to the pitch," explained Montgomery. "You have to give yourself a chance to be a hitter. If you're tentative at the plate and you're not really being an aggressive hitter, then somebody is going to take your spot."
With her 30th season ahead, Montgomery likes her young, talented and yet somewhat inexperienced team. Filling out the lineup card before each game, despite the unknowns, will not be Montgomery's biggest concern.
"We have a lot of inexperience, and we're playing a high-level schedule," she said. "I've got to coach these kids and keep their mentality and confidence up so they can handle the adversity and pressure of the schedule. It will be fun to see who steps up, and I'm looking forward to seeing who performs."