Laura Matthews doesn’t make promises she can’t keep.
The fourth-year Wittenberg softball coach is no different than her peers on the recruiting trail, telling prospects they’ll be able to compete for starting spots as freshmen. But unlike perhaps at some other programs, Matthews has proof she means what she says.
The Tigers are in position to break DePauw’s stranglehold on the top spot in the North Coast Athletic Conference in part because of the boost provided by four freshmen starters and two key first-year subs.
Third baseman Missy Lee (hitting .328), designated player Katy Baumgartner (.407), centerfielder Lauren Buelow (.389) and catcher Rachel Black (.293) are rookie first-stringers who have helped Wittenberg to a 23-4-1 overall record (the tie came in a game called by darkness) and a 7-1 league mark.
Area products Abby Curnutte, a first-baseman from Urbana, and Courtney Lopez, a pitcher from Kenton Ridge, also have provided a lift as backups.
“I joke sometimes that we’ve got a socialist team,” said Mathews, a former University of Dayton softball star who was an Academic All-American in 2008. “I don’t care what year you are, we’re going to put the best team out on the field. We don’t have one of those cultures where the freshmen carry all the equipment.
“We’ve played freshmen every year. That’s how you get better. You bring in quality freshmen, and they push the returners to get better — or they unseat them.”
After three solid seasons under Matthews, the Tigers are poised to reach new ground this year. They’ll battle for first place when they begin a two-game series today at DePauw (17-11, 8-0), which has won the last three league regular-season titles and reached the NCAA Division III tournament by capturing conference tourney crowns in 2014 and ‘15.
But the Tigers won’t be just relying on newbies.
Senior shortstop Loren Combs, a former conference player of the year, is hitting .413 and has set an NCAC career record for steals with 93.
“She’s our energy. She’s our engine,” Matthews said.
Pitcher Chelsea Zang, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, leads the conference in ERA (1.29) and innings pitched (103) and is tied for first in wins (11-3 record).
“She’s got quite the presence on the mound. She pounds the strike zone,” Matthews said.
Zang was the conference newcomer of the year in 2015 after going 12-7 with a 1.68 ERA while also hitting better than .300 and clubbing four homers.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are. If you’re good, you’ll be in the lineup,” Zang said. “We support each other, and we want to have the best outcome possible.”
Zang said the goals this year go beyond the NCAC. They want to compete for the national title.
They’re trying to make their first NCAA trip since 2003. If they don’t win the automatic berth, they may be in the mix for an at-large bid.
“The best teams are made up of the best people, and one through 19 on our roster, we’ve got incredible people,” Matthews said.