University of Southern Indiana Softball has been picked to finish second in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in 2021 by the league's 15 head coaches.
The nationally-ranked No. 17 Screaming Eagles, whose opening weekend at the Blue Bridge Battle in Owensboro, Kentucky, was postponed, received 170 points and a pair of first-place votes and trailed league-favorite University of Indianapolis, which received 190 points and four-first-place votes.
USI edged out the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which received 162 points and five first-place votes, while the University of Illinois Springfield (157 points/2 first-place votes) and Maryville University (135 points) rounded out the top-five picks.
Lindenwood University (127 points/1 first-place vote) and Drury University (112 points/1 first-place vote) were picked to finish sixth and seventh, respectively, while Rockhurst University (98), Truman State University (91) and Lewis University (90) rounded out the top 10 choices.
William Jewell College (84), Quincy University (53), McKendree University (45), Missouri University of Science & Technology (40) and Southwest Baptist University (21) rounded out the poll.
The Eagles, who went 15-4 in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, return 12 players, three pitchers, and six starters from last year's squad.
Head Coach Sue Kunkle, who enters her 20th year leading the Eagles with a 563-386-1 overall record, has the unenviable challenge of replacing four-time All-American Jennifer Leonhardt inside the pitcher's circle. Leonhardt, the most outstanding player of the 2018 NCAA II Championship, graduated as USI's all-time leader in career wins (83), strikeouts (787) and complete-game shutouts (35).
Kunkle will rely a trio of talented pitchers to fill the void left by Leonhardt in the circle. Juniors Katie Back (Indianapolis, Indiana) and Elissa Brown (Brownsburg, Indiana) showed marked improvement from their 2019 freshmen campaigns. Back was 3-1 in the circle with a 2.84 ERA and .234 opponent batting average a year ago, while Brown was 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA.
Sophomore pitcher/infielder Allie Goodin (Evansville, Indiana) went 4-0 in the circle with a 2.47 ERA and 26 strikeouts during her rookie campaign. She also hit .385 with five doubles, a home run and 10 RBI.
USI also got a big performance from another freshman last year as infielder Rachel Martinez (Chicago, Illinois) hit .356 with four doubles, two triples, a home run and 10 RBI.
Leonhardt was one of three seniors lost a year ago and Kunkle will turn to a pair of seniors in 2021 to carry on the torch of success this season. Outfielders Alicia Webb (Elberfeld, Indiana) and Jessica Tucker (Georgetown, Kentucky) were freshmen when the Eagles won the 2018 national championship and have been members of two NCAA II Tournament teams during their tenure at USI.
Webb, a 2019 All-GLVC performer, hit .286 with two doubles, a triple two home runs and eight RBI a year ago. Tucker played in 13 games, making 12 starts, a year ago. She hit .207 with three RBI.
Kunkle and the entire USI family is thrilled to have junior catcher Courtney Schoolcraft (Crest Hill, Illinois) back in the fold again in 2021. Schoolcraft overcame radiation treatments in the Fall of 2019 to start all of USI's 19 games behind the plate a year ago. She hit .278 with five doubles, two home runs, 10 RBI and 14 runs scored.
USI also brought in three talented freshmen this season that have a chance to make immediate impacts on the Eagles' lineup. Outfielder Mackenzie Bedrick (Brownsburg, Indiana), an All-State honoree, hit .531 as a junior in 2019 at Brownsburg High School, racking up 39 career RBI, 11 doubles, two triples and a home run.
Catcher/infielder Lexi Fair (Greenwood, Indiana) helped lead Center Grove High School to the IHSAA Class 4A state tile as a junior, hitting .343 with seven doubles, a triple, six home runs and 29 RBI, while third baseman Emma Herron (Indianapolis, Indiana) graduated from Franklin Central High School with a .323 career batting average, 18 doubles, two home runs a triple and 41 RBI.
Following this week's postponement, the Eagles are now set to begin the season February 19 when they take on Wingate University in a doubleheader in Dahlonega, Georgia. USI takes on No. 2 University of North Georgia in a doubleheader February 20 in Dahlonega before visiting No. 6 Young Harris College for a single game the following day in Young Harris, Georgia.
The Blue Bridge Classic has been rescheduled for February 26-28 in Owensboro, while USI is set to host the Midwest Region Crossover March 5-7 at Deaconess Sports Park in Evansville, Indiana.
USI finishes the Midwest Region Crossover with No. 25 Grand Valley State University March 7, before opening GLVC play against No. 21 Indianapolis March 14 at the USI Softball Field. The Eagles are scheduled to play 14 conference games at the USI Softball Field and a total of 28 conference games throughout year. (Note: Fan attendance throughout the season is to be determined. Most of USI's conference games will be aired live on the GLVC Sports Network, while 95.7 The Spin also will carry select games on the radio.)
The GLVC Tournament returns to the EastSide Centre in East Peoria, Illinois, May 6-9, while the NCAA II Midwest Region Tournament is May 13-15. The NCAA II Midwest Super-Regional is May 20-21, while the NCAA II Softball Championship is May 27-31 in Denver, Colorado.