Western Washington Clear Favorite In Softball Preseason Poll
Western Washington finished the 2015 season with a 30-18 overall record and lost to Montana State Billings in the GNAC Tournament championship game.
Western Washington finished the 2015 season with a 30-18 overall record and lost to Montana State Billings in the GNAC Tournament championship game.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. – A year after just missing a conference tournament title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, coaches have picked Western Washington to reach the pinnacle in the 2016 Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s Preseason Softball Coaches Poll.

The Vikings received five of eight first place votes, earning 61 points in the poll. Western Washington is clear and away the favorite over defending GNAC regular season champion Saint Martin’s, picked to finish second with 47 points. Western Oregon was picked third, close behind Saint Martin’s with 43 points.

Montana State Billings, who surprised the conference with a spirited run to the GNAC Tournament championship and their first trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament since 2012, was picked to finish fourth with 37 points. Central Washington finished one point behind, picked fifth with 36 points. The Wildcats were followed by GNAC newcomer Concordia (33 pts.), Simon Fraser (17 pts.) and Northwest Nazarene (14 pts.).

Western Washington, who completed 2015 with a 30-18 overall record, is aiming to win their first GNAC title since 2007. After finishing second in last year’s regular season, the Vikings rebounded from an opening game loss to Montana State Billings in the GNAC Tournament to take elimination-game victories from both Western Oregon and Saint Martin’s before falling to the destined Yellowjackets in the championship game, 9-5. Western Washington thrived on extra bases, finishing second in the GNAC with 11 triples and 37 home runs and ranked third with a .465 slugging percentage.

The Vikings enter the season as the league’s most experienced team, returning 18 players from last year, including eight position starters and three all-conference selections. Senior first baseman Alexie Levin is the team’s top returning offensive threat. The First Team All-GNAC selection and 2014 GNAC Player of the Year hit a respectable .315 with 11 doubles, six home runs, 40 RBI and a .554 slugging percentage. Defensively sound, Levin was one of two regular starters with a 1.000 fielding percentage. Sophomore pitcher Makinlee Sellevold also earned first team honors and was the GNAC Freshman of the Year after amassing a 25-9 record and a GNAC best 2.33 earned run average in the circle. In 33 starts, Sellevold held opponents to a .240 average.

Senior second baseman Kali Patterson returns after earning Honorable Mention All-GNAC honors last year. Patterson hit .345 with seven doubles and 16 RBI. She and Levin are joined by a solid corps of infielders that includes junior catcher Lynsey Amundson, sophomore first baseman Emily Benson and senior third baseman Emma Blauser.

Saint Martin’s rolled to the GNAC regular season championship with a 20-4 mark and entered the GNAC Championships with eight straight wins before being eliminated from the tourney by Montana State Billings and Western Washington. Despite the loss, the Saints advanced to the NCAA Division II West Regional thanks to their No. 7 regional ranking. The top offensive producing team in the league, the Saints led the GNAC in batting average (.345), on-base percentage (.415), runs scored (392), runs batted in (360) and doubles (103). Behind the powerful arm of Co-GNAC Player of the Year Sam Munger, the Saints also led the league with a 3.44 earned run average.

The Saints return 12 players and five position starters, but must replace their workhorse in Munger who not only led the team in the circle (2.57 earned run average), but also at the plate with a .430 average, 54 runs, 21 doubles and 54 RBI. Junior outfielder Mary Dettling leads the corps of returning starters and three returning Second Team All-GNAC selections. The lefty finished with a .372 batting average, trailing only Munger, with 52 runs, 18 doubles and 33 RBI. Senior infielder Megan Miller hit .324 with 39 runs, 30 RBI and seven stolen bases. Sophomore Lindsey Miller is expected to step into a starting pitching role after finished with a 7-3 record and 3.24 earned run average in 15 appearances. Lindsey also did damage at the plate, hitting .367 with 39 runs and 38 RBI. Both Millers were Second Team All-GNAC selections.

Western Oregon is picked third, but was the only team among the top five selected not to receive a first place vote. The Wolves won eight of their final 14 regular season games to claim the No. 4 spot in the GNAC Championships, falling to Saint Martin’s and Western Washington in the double elimination tournament. Western Oregon returns an experienced squad. Of the 14 returners from last year, nine are upperclassmen.

The Wolves return a pair of First Team All-GNAC selections in junior infielder Kelsey Gardner and junior infielder Destiny Kuehl. Gardner led the GNAC in hitting with a .432 average and finished second in the league with 76 hits. Kuehl hit a productive .336 with 39 hits and 19 RBI. Senior outfielder Brandy Knowles hit .340 last season in 20 starts and a limited 53 plate appearances.

With the departure of Second Team All-GNAC pitcher Jourdan Williams, the Wolves will lean more heavily on senior Alyson Boytz (9-12, 4.19 ERA) and sophomore Lizzet Dominguez (3-6, 6.32 ERA) in the circle.

Picked sixth in last year’s preseason poll, Montana State Billings stunned the league by finishing third in the regular season standings, winning 11 of their final 14 conference games to secure a spot in the GNAC Championships. Once there, the Yellowjackets were unstoppable as they won all three games to claim their first GNAC Tournament title and their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012. The Yellowjackets advanced to the sub-regional championship game, falling 11-4 to Sonoma State. Montana State Billings benefitted from a lot of power, leading the GNAC in slugging percentage (.482) and home runs (50) while finishing second in the league in batting average (.331).

But that 2015 success is tempered by a lot of of 2016 change. The Yellowjackets lost all three of their First Team All-GNAC selections, including Co-Player of the Year Taylor Hoke and top pitcher Jessyka MacDonald (21-8, 2.92 ERA). The team also lost head coach Lisa Allen, who left after seven seasons to take the top job at San Francisco State. Rebekah Gasner was named interim head coach after five seasons as an assistant coach.

The cupboard, though, is far from empty. Junior outfielder Bella Rovens was the team’s top hitter in 2015 with a .392 average, 51 runs, 20 RBI and 13 stolen bases, earning Second Team All-GNAC honors. The offense is further bolstered by junior third baseman Kelsey Devlin, who hit .356 with seven home runs and a .550 slugging percentage and sophomore first baseman Cameron Cassinelli, who hit .375 with 33 RBI and a .659 slugging percentage. The Yellowjackets also return last year’s No. 2 starting pitcher in sophomore Megan Dettling, who finished with a 3-3 record in 61 innings.

While Central Washington is picked to finish fifth, the Wildcats welcome back 16 players from last season, including nearly every regular starter. The Wildcats also welcome an experienced head coach in Mike Larabee, who takes over in Ellensburg after 11 seasons as a Division I coach, including the last six seasons at Arkansas.

Central Washington returns both of their First Team All-GNAC selections in junior infielder Kailyn Campbell and senior catcher Austin Wilkerson. Campbell led the Wildcats with a .395 batting average (fourth in the GNAC), 58 hits and 19 extra-base hits (11 doubles, 7 home runs) and a .626 slugging percentage. Wilkerson hit .366 with 52 hitss and 34 RBI and was just as solid defensively. She was the GNAC co-leader with 12 runners caught stealing and caught a pitching staff with the second best earned run average in the GNAC at 3.83. Junior outfielder Sammy Morris earned Second Team All-GNAC honors after hitting .388 with 62 hits and 11 stolen bases.

Further bolstering the CWU offense include sophomore outfielder Celine Fowler (.321 average), junior shortstop Taylor Ferleman (.447 average in 16 games) and senior third baseman Alexa Olague (.366 average). The Wildcats also return their top pitcher in junior Kiana Wood (6-9, 2.99 ERA).

While this is Concordia’s first year as a GNAC member, they come to Division II as an experienced, championship-caliber program. The Cavaliers capped it’s run as a NAIA school with a 46-19 overall record in 2015, a third place finish at the NAIA National Tournament and a No. 6 ranking in the final NAIA Coaches Poll. Concordia finished the season with a .337 team batting average, a .511 slugging percentage and a 3.69 earned run average, and went 7-3 last year against GNAC teams.

The Cavaliers return 16 players, seven position starters and three pitchers from last year’s national tournament team. Junior outfielder Meghan Luebbert was named an Honorable Mention NAIA All-American after leading the team with a .381 batting average. Her 83 hits and 70 RBI were the fourth best in Cascade Collegiate Conference history while her 21 doubles set a conference record. Concordia also returns a First Team All-CCC selection in senior second baseman Destinee Chang (.356 average, 46 hits, 8 HR) and solid infielders in junior shortstop Taylor Bussey (.317 average, 14 HR) and senior third baseman Taylor Copher (.320 average, 31 runs, 28 RBI).

Simon Fraser is picked seventh after amassing a 17-30 overall record, but could make a move back up the ladder with 14 returners and some experienced talent. Senior outfielder Rachel Proctor will lead the Clan after earning First Team All-GNAC honors. She finished with a .354 average and a .520 slugging percentage with 45 hits and 25 RBI. Sophomore infielder Taylor Lundrigan hit .327 with 48 hits (two short of school record) and 21 RBI and spent the summer as a member of the Canadian Junior National Team. Sophomore outfielder Taylor Gillis and sophomore catcher Katherine Murnaghan were among those who just missed the final cut for the Canadian Junior National Team.

The Clan will depend on senior Jessica Goulet and sophomore Alia Stachoski to make up for the graduation of Second Team All-GNAC pitcher Kelsie Hawkins. Goulet finished with a 6.95 earned run average and 49 strikeouts while Stachoski finished with 57 strikeouts. Both pitchers had 21 starts.

Northwest Nazarene is picked eighth in the poll and will once again be looking to build around a young roster with nine freshmen and five sophomores. Senior outfielder Ali Schauer is NNU’s top returning hitter. She finished with a .311 average in 2015 with 37 hits and 18 RBI. Sophomore outfielder Lily Paschal finished with a .299 average and 14 stolen bases as a freshman while sophomore Kiahna Brown amassed a .310 average in 87 at bats in her first season in Nampa.

The 2016 GNAC softball season commences on Fri., Feb. 5. Central Washington, Concordia, Northwest Nazarene and Western Washington will compete in the Desert Stinger Tournament in Las Vegas, which is hosted by Montana State Billings. Western Oregon will play single games against Metro State (Colo.) and UC San Diego in Ja Jolla, Calif., while Simon Fraser will compete in the Golf Coast Classic in Gulf Shores, Ala. Saint Martin’s opens their season on Sat., Feb. 6, with a doubleheader at San Diego Christian.

Pos. Team (1st Place Votes) Overall
GNAC Record
1. Western Washington (5) 30-18 11-7 (2nd) 61
2. Saint Martin's (1) 41-20 20-4 (1st) 47
3. Western Oregon 21-28 13-9 (4th) 43
4. Montana State Billings (1) 31-23 14-8 (3rd) 37
5. Central Washington (1) 20-23 11-13 (5th) 36
6. Concordia 46-19 First Year In GNAC 33
7. Simon Fraser 17-30 5-19 (6th) 17
8. Northwest Nazarene 9-37 2-22 (7th) 14

Votes awarded on 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis.