MOUNT VERNON – Cornell softball coach Shanda Ness isn't pinning her team's 2013 success on preseason prognosticators (See coach Brent Brase, women's basketball).
The Rams were picked last month as the South Division preseason favorite in the Midwest Conference Preseason Coaches' Poll. Cornell and Monmouth each received three first-place votes in the six-team division, but the Rams got the nod in total tallies, 23-22.
The favorite label came as a warm welcome for a program that hasn't competed in the MWC since 1997.
"It's nice the conference respects us that much. Of course, it's a boost of confidence," said Ness, who has compiled a 111-108-1 record in six seasons on the Hilltop. "But our girls know we have to perform every pitch and every inning of every game. Nobody is going to give it to us."
Ness' Rams are coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in school history. The team returns several key components from last year's 20-18 finish, which included a 6-10 mark in the Iowa Conference.
The Rams start the season in Clermont, Fla., where they are scheduled to play nine games in six days. Cornell opens Saturday against Northwestern (Minn.) and Bethel (Minn.), followed by a Sunday contest against Denison (Ohio). The Rams play two games each on March 11 (UT-Dallas, St. Scholastica (Minn.)), March 13 (Manhattanville (N.Y.), Westfield (Mass.)) and March 14 (Franciscan (Ohio), Rhode Island).
"We have a strong schedule in Florida, which is what we wanted with a veteran team," Ness said. "We certainly have high expectations to perform. The girls have worked real hard indoors and have put the time in. Now we have to get outside and see where we're at. I feel good about it."
Cornell will rely on a pair of juniors to head the pitching staff in Amanda Engel and Jackie Sernek. Both look to spell the loss of Jill Trzaska, a four-year starter who graduated as the program's all-time strikeout leader (327).
Engel finished 7-7 with a 3.39 earned run average last season. She fired 11 complete games and led the team with four shutouts. Sernek went 3-4 with a 3.00 ERA. She averaged nearly one strikeout per inning pitched (35 K – 39.2 IP).
"Amanda and Jackie are both solid and experienced," Ness said. "For the most part, both will be expected to finish their own games this season."
The Rams return seven position players to the starting lineup. That group does not include all-conference sophomore second baseman Sabrina Hargis, who recently underwent season-ending shoulder surgery.
First baseman Kari Martin posted a team-high .385 batting average during an impressive freshman campaign. The Mount Vernon native collected eight doubles, three home runs and 16 RBIs to go with a .603 slugging percentage.
Senior outfielder Brittani Yost (.342) and junior shortstop Rebekah Ozga (.310) shared the team lead with 40 hits. Yost tallied nine doubles and 20 RBIs. Ozga finished with 21 runs, 10 doubles and 23 RBIs, all team-highs. Sernek (.262) started 27 games at third base. Junior second baseman Rachel Aubry is a candidate to replace Hargis.
Ness noted a handful of freshmen could contribute and play key roles early.
"Our depth is a strength. We have girls that can play a lot of different positions," Ness said. "I feel like we should be solid up and down the lineup, and also in the field."
Cornell's home opener is scheduled for March 23 against former IIAC foe Wartburg. The Rams also have home dates with Monmouth (South Division opener April 2), Lake Forest (April 6), Iowa Wesleyan (April 20) and Dubuque (April 22).
The top two teams in the North and South Divisions qualify for the MWC Tournament May 3.
"We know there will be challenges ahead," Ness said. "We are optimistic."