The Spalding University softball team will be relying on an impressive core of young talent as it tries to make history this weekend in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament.
Spalding, whose 22-player roster includes 17 freshmen and sophomores and only one senior, is back in the SLIAC Tournament for the first time since 2015 and will be vying for its first league tournament title and first bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
“We’ve been selling all along to the kids that anything we do going forward is going to be making history for Spalding,” coach Art Williams said. “To win the first league championship, to go to the first NCAA Tournament, those are the building blocks for the future of the program. When you do stuff like that, it builds a culture of winning, a culture of wanting to be involved, and if they do that, it’s in the history books and no one can take that away from them for the being the first to do something for the university.”
Spalding (26-13, 13-5 SLIAC) finished in a four-way tie for second place in the regular-season standings and, through tiebreakers, earned the No. 4 seed in the league tournament. Spalding will face No. 1 Eureka (24-6, 14-4) at 4 p.m. EDT Friday in the four-team, double-elimination tournament at Westminster. No. 2 Iowa Wesleyan and No. 3 Greenville are also in the field.
Spalding had a grueling end to the regular season, playing 10 games (winning seven) in six days. The Golden Eagles had a chance to win its first SLIAC regular-season title on the final day of the regular season but dropped both games of a doubleheader to Eureka, which finished one game up in the standings.
Spalding still matched the 2014 Golden Eagles for the most SLIAC victories in school history while improving considerably on last year’s 17-16, 9-9 record.
“As young as we were, I didn’t really know what to expect coming into the season,” Williams said. “But the upperclassmen showed strong leadership and got the ways of the program into the minds of the younger kids, and we just blossomed every time we went out. It was fun to watch; that’s for sure.”
Williams said he’s relied on all 22 players on the roster at times, with several having big seasons, including top sophomores Ally Klein and Olivia Carter.
Williams said that “the heart and soul of the team begins with” Klein, who enters the league tournament as the reigning SLIAC Hitter of the Week. Williams said she has a case as the league’s player of the year.
The Holy Cross High School product is batting a team-best .402, leads the SLIAC with 19 stolen bases and is second in the league with 38 runs. Her 12 doubles are tied for No. 7 in the league.
Klein sets the tone for a speedy team that Williams said is aggressive on the basepaths and “creates some havoc” for opponents. Spalding leads the conference in steals (80), including 14 apiece by Addie Morris and Jennifer Peffley.
Carter, a two-way star who made the All-SLIAC second team as a freshman last year, has continued to progress in 2019. In the circle, she is 13-5, including six shutouts, with a 3.88 earned-run average. At the plate, Carter is batting .385.
Carter threw a no-hitter in a 13-0 victory over MacMurray on April 24 – the first no-hitter Williams could recall at Spalding in his 13 years as head coach.
“I was really proud of her,” Williams said. “She’s worked really hard, had some one-hitters, and she got great team defense behind her. She did a great job.”
Sophomore slugger Grace Sweat is hitting .376 and leads the team with six home runs and 32 RBIs.
“She hit one last week that hit the top of a pine tree or else it would still be going probably,” Williams said.
Pitcher Chloe Skorija has been a leader in the freshman class, going 8-5 with a team-best 3.67 ERA and complementing Carter in the circle.
With those youngsters back for future seasons and Spalding set to begin play in the new on-campus athletic fields complex in 2020, the future looks bright for the Golden Eagles.
“The sky’s the limit for them,” Williams said. “As long as they keep their good attitude and working hard, who knows what’s going to happen for the future of Spalding softball?”
But the Golden Eagles are not done yet in 2019, and Williams likes their team-first attitude.
“They’ve done a really great job of coming together,” Williams said. “There’s no jealousy on the team. We all play for each other, and it’s a great feeling to be in charge of something like that.”