GENESEO, N.Y. – The 2016 SUNY Geneseo softball team welcomes a talented incoming class, along with a veteran core from last season's 28-12 squad that came within a win of the SUNYAC Championship. A pre-season poll of the conference coaches tabbed the Knights to finish third in the SUNYAC, which would put Geneseo in the SUNYAC playoffs for the eighth consecutive season and 17th time in the last 18 years.
The ranking reflects a 2015 that was the best season for Geneseo softball in over a decade. The team finished second in the SUNYAC with a 14-4 regular-season mark, its highest finish and most wins since 2005. The squad's 28 wins was the most since 2004, the 18-game winning streak was second longest in program history and the championship game appearance was the first since 2002. The team ended the season ranked third in the Northeast Region and was in consideration for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. Still, head coach Dave Sylvester faces the challenge of replacing graduation losses in two major areas: the top of the order in his lineup and most of his pitching battery.
Graduates Ashley Fillmore, Sami Brown and Kayleigh Blersch were consistent names in the one-through-four spots in the Knights' lineup that finished tied for second in runs scored in the SUNYAC. Fillmore was one of two catchers who saw the bulk of the action behind the plate, Brown (SS) and Blersch (CF) occupied key defensive positions and pitcher Corrin Spallone was the staff workhorse, leading the team in most pitching categories.
Sylvester will look to the top offensive players among returning starters, seniors Courtney Budynas, Cat Krok and Jenna Phillips, as well as sophomore Emily Martin to help make up for the departures. Among the pitchers, senior Mikayla Moore is the top returner after being the number-two starter the past two seasons and Sylvester will count on a combination of returning veterans and promising newcomers both on the mound and behind the plate to help fill those key roles. In the field, the Knights have a versatile roster that allows for varied options in their defensive lineup.
"I have a lot of good athletes that I can pretty much plug in at any position," states Sylvester. "It'll come down to who is hot with the bat in terms of who gets in the lineup."
The fourth-year coach is also enthusiastic about his incoming class. Of the six first-year players joining the Knights this season, four have All-New York State honors on their playing resumes and the other two have Most Valuable Player honors in their respective high school leagues.
"The entire incoming class has the ability to help this team," said Sylvester. "Each one can step in and contribute and make this team better."
Geneseo begins its season with 10 games in Florida, March 13-18, before returning north to start SUNYAC and regional play. Sylvester feels that this year's spring trip will be the most telling since he's taken over as head coach.
"I'll probably get the most answers out of this trip than any other early-season trip," said Sylvester. "In my mind, there's four-to-five spots in our lineup that are wide open and dependent on who performs well in Florida."
Moore went 11-3 with a 2.21 ERA in 12 starts in 2015, part of a pitching staff that finished second in the SUNYAC and led the conference in strikouts. She was in the SUNYAC top-10 in a number of pitching categories including ERA (fourth, 1.91) strikeouts (fifth, 36) and wins (tied for third, six). Moore had two wins against Oneonta, including one in the conference tournament and had double-digit strikeouts in wins against Lancaster Bible and Houghton. Other returning pitchers are sophomore Olivia Furness and junior Alexis Kidder, who each made three starts in 2015.
Newcomers include first-years Taylor Moore and Alyssa Persich. Moore, the younger sister of Mikayla, was a four-time all-conference player in high school while Persich, a left-hander, was third team Class AA All-New York State last season as a pitcher/outfielder.
"We'll probably have a lot of pitching by committee," said Sylvester, in terms of who will pick up innings behind Moore. "We have four pitchers who we can put out there dependent on the style of our opponent."
Junior Taylor Knowles is the sole returning player behind the plate. She appeared in four games, all starts, and was errorless in the field. Offensively, she hit .455 with five hits, four runs and three RBI in her 11 at-bats. To bolster the position, Sylvester has brought in two receivers among his recruiting class: first-years Anna Merante and Taylor Fedor. Merante was a three-time first-team All-Monroe County selection during her career at Pittsford Mendon and earned third-team All-New York State honors as a junior. Fedor was a two-time Adirondack League MVP for Corinth High School.
"We'll find out a good deal about the catchers down in Florida," said Sylvester. "All three are pretty equal heading into the season."
The Knights faced the least turnover in the infield, where all besides Brown return, but a key piece is uncertain due to a lingering injury to Budynas. She made 32 starts at second base and was a second-team All-SUNYAC selection and led Geneseo in RBI (26), slugging percentage (.540) and tied for the team lead in home runs (4), while hitting. 363. She hit .371 in SUNYAC play, with three home runs and 12 RBI. Her home run total tied her for seventh in the conference and she was eighth in the SUNYAC in hits (23).
Budynas hopes to be available as the designated player and in her absence, junior Jacqueline Santilli has been slotted in at second base. Martin moves into the shortstop role after seeing time at both third base and designated player, earning the most starts (32) among last year's incoming class. She hit .333, and was among the team leaders in runs (28) and hits (35). Junior Abby Dennett made 31 starts at first base, committing only one error in the field and contributing some timely hits, while Krok was fourth on the team with 18 RBI from her third-base spot.
Returning players who saw infield duty last season include Phillips and sophomores Tori Fahie, Julia Lalka and Claire VanNewkirk with the latter duo adding extra-base power off the bench. The sole first-year among the infielders, Kylie Papagelos, earned All-New York State first-team honors as an infielder.
Blersch was a consistent presence in center field last season, but the corner outfield spots were filled by a number of players who return this season. Phillips made 26 starts in left, as well as six in the infield and Sylvester expects to again use her in a number of roles. Not only versatile defensively, she was hitting over .400 through the first 27 games until a late-season slump dropped her average.
Juniors Alyssa Presutti and Marisa Motisi made multiple starts last season and will be in the mix. Mikayla Moore will see time in the outfield when not on the mound, as will newcomers Taylor Moore and Persich. First-year Danni Napoli, another All-New York State player from 2015, is also an available outfield option.
Geneseo was the surprise team of the SUNYAC in 2015. Picked for fifth in the pre-season poll, the Knights contended for the conference regular-season title and had two chances in the double-elimination SUNYAC Tournament to claim the playoff championship. Sylvester admits that a lot went well for his squad last season and that this year's pre-season ranking of third acknowledges that success. He notes that Brockport and Buffalo St. are just behind in the poll.
"The SUNYAC is always tightly contested and we lost some key players," said Sylvester. "Still, our goal at the outset of every season is to be in the top six and qualify for the playoffs."
This year's team faces a challenging slate of games, in terms of both quality and scheduling. Geneseo will play only two of its first 28 games on their home turf and eight opponents are coming off seasons in which they earned NCAA regional rankings. Among those are SUNYAC foes Cortland and Oneonta, the two squads picked above the Knights in the conference pre-season poll and the last two SUNYAC Champions.
On the flip side, Geneseo will close its season with six consecutive doubleheaders at Vic Raschi Field, with the last four against conference opponents. The Knights were 13-1 at home last season and Sylvester is well aware that those last two SUNYAC weekend series could play a key role in where the Knights finish in the conference standings.
"We will need to be in a decent position within the conference when we begin our stretch of home games," said Sylvester. "If we are, we'll have the opportunity to have a strong finish that will hopefully carry us into the playoffs."