Cara LaPlaca knew what she was getting into when she was hired as Dayton women’s softball coach in 2008. The Flyers had plummeted so far in the Atlantic 10 that they couldn’t see the top teams in the conference without a Hubble telescope.
“Our first goals were to change the culture and have a competitive atmosphere here, and we were able to do that. Then it was to plug in some top-level recruits,” she said.
“We went all over the country — and even outside the country with two Canadian kids on our roster — to get the best talent we could find and also the best fit for the University of Dayton, which is really critical. I feel we did that. All our pieces are starting to come together.”
The Flyers qualified for the six-team A-10 tourney in 2011 — their first appearance in the event since 2000 — and are on the cusp of making the field for the second time in three years.
They’re in sixth place at 10-7 in the conference and have four games left, finishing at home with double-headers against second-place George Washington on Saturday and last-place St. Bonaventure on May 4.
The Flyers also have a shot at their first winning season overall since 2005. Although they started the year 0-6 with losses to the likes of Iowa and Oklahoma State, they had a 19-20 record going into Wednesday’s action.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge early on,” said LaPlaca, who met her husband, Michael, at UD and has started a family with two girls under age 3. “We talked to our players about creating steel and building steel and how you have to go through the fire in order to be stronger and better. Our kids have really embraced that metaphor.
“We’ve been able to get the benefits of that early tough competition, and we feel we can compete against anybody.”
Part of that optimism stems from a pitching staff anchored by Kayla English, a sophomore from Grapevine, Texas. She’s the Aroldis Chapman of the A-10, notching more strikeouts (152) than innings pitched (124 1/3). Her whiff ratio of 7.58 over seven innings is the best in program history.
English has been named A-10 pitcher of the week three times this year. And the Flyers have two other starters to complement her in Emily Froment, a Twin Valley South grad, and Alysha Isaacson, a native Californian.
“We have Kayla, who is a strong, physical presence and brings some power to her performance, and the other two are crafty in their locations and their movements,” LaPlaca said.
English led the nation in strikeouts as a senior at Fort Worth Christian. And Flyer assistant Sarah Harman, who has coaching ties in Texas, was able to convince her to check out UD — although getting her to leave her roots in the Lone Star State wasn’t easy.
“At first it was kind of like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to leave.’ But I really thought that going away would help me grow as a person and kind of keep me away from being so set on what my dad thinks or what my mom thinks about me playing,” English said. “It helped me just grow as a person. And I became a better softball player.
“I love it here, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”