EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. – After three consecutive seasons of landing in the championship game of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, the SIUE softball Cougars are operating in an optimistic mode for the 2017 season.
"You always plan for big things, and I feel good about this team," said 29th-year Head Coach Sandy Montgomery, sporting a glittering record of 985-506-2 at SIUE. "Last year, we had some injuries, but this year, it looks like all of the pieces are in place. We have pitching, team speed and team power, but you need to have some breaks go your way and make some of your own breaks to win games."
Last season, SIUE battled through adversity to finish 28-26 and take second in the OVC Tournament. The Cougars, picked second to Jacksonville State in this year's OVC preseason poll, debut Friday in the Louisiana-Monroe Tournament. The Cougars are scheduled to play five nonconference games during three days in northern Louisiana.
Then it's on to tournaments at Auburn, Baylor and South Florida where the Cougars will face a diverse group of opponents, including Auburn, Evansville, Mercer, St. Francis, Baylor, UMass, Penn, South Dakota State, LaSalle, Holy Cross, Providence, IPFW and Saint Joseph's.
The Cougars then return home to welcome their own tourney on March 17-19. It will feature Toledo, Ball State and Northern Kentucky.
In addition to the OVC slate, the Cougars have intriguing nonconference matchups at SIU Carbondale (March 29), at Illinois (April 11) and at Saint Louis (April 18). Kansas (March 22) and Bradley (April 4) serve as key nonconference home contests.
"Our goal is to win the conference tournament and make it to the NCAA Tournament," Montgomery said. The Cougars did that in 2014, then compiled a 43-16 record a year later.
What's stoking the Cougars' high-flying aspirations is the return of senior pitcher Haley Chambers-Book. The 5-foot, 7-inch senior left-hander from Coatesville, Indiana, sat out the 2016 season after tearing apart the OVC in 2015. She posted a 25-7 record with a 1.45 earned run average and logged 315 strikeouts in 231.1 innings.
Chambers-Book, the 2015 OVC Pitcher of the Year, also batted a team-best .369 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs. When she doesn't pitch, Chambers-Book will log ample time at first base or in the outfield.
"She's one of the top pitchers in the country and definitely one of the best players in the conference," Montgomery said. "Having her come back this season is huge for us."
In addition, Chambers-Book needs just 15 strikeouts to set the SIUE career record. She has notched 723 of them. Erika Taylor owns the school mark with 737 from 2008-2011.
The Cougars boast depth in the circle with junior Ashley Koziol (Willow Springs, Illinois), plus freshmen Emily Ingles (Scottsdale, Arizona) and Abby Marlow (New Athens, Illinois) also in the mix. It appears Koziol and Ingles will battle for the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Chambers-Book. Koziol registered a 10-14 record with a 3.32 ERA in 2016.
"Koziol is a hard thrower and continues to get better," Montgomery said. "Ingles loves to compete, and Marlow is a good athlete. All three have tremendous potential."
Tess Eby (Grapevine, Texas), a junior, figures to do the bulk of the catching. She joins Chambers-Book, senior infielder Allison Smiley (Johnston City, Illinois) and senior outfielder Whitney Lanphier (Plainfield, Illinois) as the Cougars' captains.
"Tess is very passionate about the game, and she will hit in the middle of the lineup," Montgomery said. Eby batted .263 last year and started every game behind the plate. She hit five home runs and collected a team-best 29 RBIs.
Freshman Sydney Bina (Washington, Illinois) and Amy Hunt (Troy, Illinois) also will vie for time in the catcher's role. Hunt, a senior, has made her mark as a versatile player during her collegiate career. Last season, she made 51 starts, including 40 at shortstop, nine at catcher and one each at third base and first base.
Montgomery said freshman Kalei Kaneshiro (Pearl City, Hawaii) also could fill in behind the plate. However, Kaneshiro likely will play mostly at third base. "She's fun to be around, and she loves to play the game," Montgomery said.
Junior Haley Adrian (Auburn, Alabama), a starter for 49 games last season on the hot corner, also figures to log time at third base.
The left side of the infield also expects to be stationed by newcomer Sarah Lopesilvero (Simpsonville, Kentucky), who is set to help anchor the defense at shortstop. Montgomery said she foresees good things from the senior transfer from Louisville.
"She's a gamer who is very focused and driven," Montgomery said. "She loves to compete."
Smiley returns to play second base, and Montgomery is just as excited about her four-year starter. Smiley hit .279 with three home runs and 19 RBIs last season. She has been named to the OVC All-Tournament team in each of the last two seasons.
"She's probably the most game-savvy player I've ever coached," Montgomery said. "She understands the game, is steady and plays with a lot of poise."
The most intriguing position for the Cougars may be who plays next to Smiley at first base. Montgomery admitted it will likely depend on who is pitching.
"Schafer is one of our better hitters. She can hit for average and has lots of power," Montgomery said.
SIUE's depth on the infield is even more evident than in past seasons. Montgomery expects junior Talisa Morton (Fenton, Missouri), and sophomore Jane Smith (Wheaton, Illinois) all to be ready on a moment's notice to provide a needed boost off the bench.
As Montgomery has made clear in the past, good hitters find their way into the starting lineup.
Alyssa Heren (Saline, Michigan) will move from left field to center field this season. A member of the OVC All-Newcomer team last season, the left-handed hitting Heren batted .282 with 27 RBIs and a team-high seven home runs last year as a freshman. She took over the leadoff spot in the lineup midway through the season and cemented her spot in the order.
"She has speed and power and could be our leadoff hitter again this season," Montgomery said.
Reagan Curtis (Helena, Alabama) figures to take over in right field. "Curtis has tremendous power, and maybe as much power as anybody on the team," Montgomery said.
Lanphier looks to give the Cougars a top-flight outfield. She has played a handful of positions in her collegiate career but will likely have playing time in left or right field.
"She has been injury-riddled, but she has a lot of experience and a lot of power," added Montgomery.
Freshman Conner Cutright (Casey, Illinois), sophomore Savannah Fisher (Hallsville, Missouri), senior Paige Clinton (Ina, Illinois) and Smith will boost the Cougars' outfield depth. "Conner has been pushing people in practice, and I see her competing for playing time all year," added Montgomery.
What'll make things more special is when the coach records her 1,000th career victory sometime this season. Montgomery is 15 wins away from the milestone, which will put her in an elite category.
There are fewer than three dozen college softball coaches in that club.
"It means that we've put together a winning program and done a good job," said Montgomery, a former standout pitcher at SIUE. She became head coach in 1989 and achieved her first of 20 seasons with 30 or more wins. The 2007 team won the NCAA Division II championship.
In its history, SIUE has had 68 All-Region players and 86 All-Conference selections. The Cougars have appeared in the NCAA Tournament 14 times, including a Division I appearance in 2014.
"What I'm most proud of is that we have a long-standing tradition of winning," Montgomery said. "But you are as only as good as the people around you."