Back to Top

New-look Polar Bears clicking midway through Florida trip

ONU is off to a 6-0 start, their best since 2009, when the Polar Bears went 13-0 to begin the season. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

After three straight days of doubleheaders at the Sunkissed Games in Kissimmee, Fla. -- six games crammed into a span of 72 hours -- the ONU softball team got Wednesday off to rest.

They deserved it, after all. They’re undefeated.

Northern is 6-0, the program’s best start since 2009, when they began the season 13-0 and would eventually advance to the NCAA Div. III Championships.

“Overall, I’m very impressed with what we’ve done so far,” second-year head coach Jackie Price said on Wednesday, midway through the team's annual Florida trip. “It’s been a great week. We’ve definitely had people step up in different positions, given different opportunities.”

Ohio Northern started off the 2018 campaign with four commanding wins in the first two days, but won both of Tuesday’s contests in their final innings.

ONU trailed both Lebanon Valley (Pa.) and Misericordia (Pa.) by two runs apiece late before breaking through to come out on top. They beat Lebanon Valley on a walkoff sac-fly in the bottom of the seventh and conquered Misericordia on clutch hitting throughout the sixth and seventh innings to preserve their undefeated streak.

While the Polar Bears had the day off on Wednesday, we got to talk to Price and a few players about what's caused their hot start. Here’s what they mentioned:


Sophomores stepping up

Much of Tuesdays’ clutch hitting came from underclassmen, a sign of hope for Price’s young squad.

Sophomores Athena Triglia and Lexie Hess set up the sacrifice fly, which was hit by fellow sophomore Mallory Taylor, to beat Lebanon Valley. Then Hess, alongside sophomores Brady Guest and Gabby Stewart, delivered clutch hitting in the sixth inning against Misericordia before freshman Hailey Christian scored on a fielding error to put Northern up for good in the seventh.

A good portion of Northern’s sophomores cut their teeth in big spots last season, and their experience has been easily visible so far this year.

“I think we are definitely still a young team, but having an extra year of experience under their belts helps a lot,” senior pitcher Kirsten Lightel said. “They now know what to expect and how to respond.”

Through the team’s first six games, Stewart leads the team in RBIs (7) and is second in batting average (.444). Six other underclassmen are hitting above .300 to start the season.


Hollar’s hot start

Among the underclassmen, senior outfielder Jenna Hollar has taken her game to a new level early on this season as well.

Hollar has an astounding .591 batting average through the team’s first six games, recording 13 hits in her first 22 at-bats. She has also stolen eight bases already, which puts her only eight bases away from being ONU’s all-time steals leader.

But right now, Hollar says that her renewed mental approach has led to her blistering start at the plate.

“I think I’m just having more confidence at the plate,” Hollar said. “I have more of an attitude of, ‘They’re going to have to work to get me out,’ instead of doubting myself like, ‘Oh, I have to put this perfectly.’ They’re going to have to make the play.”

Hollar says that she worked on becoming a more versatile batter this offseason, perfecting her ability to ‘hard-slap’ and hit away, which are additions to her traditional bunt-oriented style of hitting.

The senior currently leads the team in batting average, hits, runs and walks.


Pitching consistency

One of Northern’s biggest advantages in recent years has been its pitching, and that has proven to be true again early this season.

Lightel is back for what could be a historic senior campaign, as she entered the season 21 wins away from the school’s all-time win record. So far, she’s 3-0, which includes an two-hit shutout on opening day. Lightel has surrendered just six runs over her first three games and currently boasts a gaudy 0.33 ERA.

Junior starter Kaitlin Surdej, who pitched nearly the same amount of innings as Lightel last year, has gotten off to a 3-0 start as well. Surdej has walked just one batter in her first three starts. Both pitchers have been able to close out at-bats as well; Lightel, the school's career strikeout leader, already has 20 Ks, while Surdej isn't far behind with 15.

​While Price is pleased with the production of her starters so far, she also noted that they will be tested this week due to the heat and limited staff support. Temperatures have been in the mid to upper-70s in Kissimmee for most of the week thus far, and Lightel and Surdej (who have both thrown complete games each time on the circle thus far in Fla.) are realistically the only two pitchers who will be asked to pitch serious innings this season for ONU.

“You can definitely tell that the warm weather has taken a toll on them, especially this last gameday. They are definitely very exhausted,” Price said. “They know the expectation, though. Right now, with where our pitching staff is, they know what’s expected of them. They know that this week -- as long as they can make it through -- that we’ll be good to go.”

Lightel says that she upped her training this offseason to prepare for the intense workload of her senior year.


Open competition for positions

Some of Northern’s early success has also come in the midst of competition.

A mix of underclassmen and upperclassmen are being asked to fill in at new positions this year due to roster changeover. Would-be seniors Gia Saturday (infield) and Anna Martin (outfield) both chose to forgo their final season of softball, as well as would-be sophomore Sam Arnold (infield) and a few others.

Both Saturday and Martin were key pieces to the program over the last three years, as Saturday played in 103 career games and held a .284 batting average while Martin finished third all-time in school history in stolen bases. Arnold appeared in 17 of the team’s final 18 games last season and emerged as a reliable weapon both at the plate and in the field.

This means that Price is having to try different players out at different positions, with so few starting spots locked in even at this point in the season. In essence, every game is a tryout.

“We definitely have a new team this year, a lot of different personnel in different spots,” Price said. “Right now, we’re just trying to figure out who we are as a team.”

Through the first six games, Price has played all 17 active players (junior Laura Burden is currently out with a broken pinky) in an effort to gauge who will earn playing time down the road. While senior Jenna Hollar is a four-year starter in the outfield, very little else is guaranteed.

Price says that she’s tried several freshmen, as well as sophomore Alicia Swierz, at the outfield positions early on. She said that senior Miranda Huddle is one of several returning infielders (among sophomores Triglia, Taylor and Jordan Cloonan) who have been switching back and forth between positions to start the Florida trip. Behind the plate, Stewart and senior Leanna Henry have split time starting as well.

Could this competition have a hand in the team's hot start? Maybe.


Despite the hot start, Price knows that there is a long road ahead. A good record in Florida doesn’t guarantee that the rest of the season will be a success. After all, ONU went 11-1 in the Sunshine State last year but finished fifth in the OAC, one spot short of qualifying for the conference tournament.

“We came back 11-1 last year from spring break, and unfortunately, the season last year was a bit of a slow decline,” Price said. “So this year, we’re just kind of taking a deep breath and finding out who’s going to bring that consistency to the field every single day. And I think that this team has the potential, we have the talent, we have the skill. It’s just going to be about bringing that consistency every single day. And if we do that, like it shows down here, we can be as good as anybody on any given day.”

ONU’s remaining schedule in Florida won’t get any easier, either. While four of the first six teams they played this week had losing records last season, all six of Northern’s remaining opponents had winning seasons. Three of those teams hovered around the 30-win mark last season, including Rowan (N.J.), who made it to NCAA Regionals.

After a day of rest, the new-look Polar Bears will have to recharge quickly. On Thursday, they have a streak to preserve.

Follow us on social media