Wittenberg narrowly emerged as the preseason favorite in balloting by North Coast Athletic Conference softball coaches in the 2014 preseason poll.
The Wittenberg Tigers, who are seeking their first NCAC title since 2000, earned two of the nine possible first-place votes cast by league coaches, but garnered enough second- and third-place votes to top the poll with 71 points. Allegheny, the defending NCAC Tournament champions, earned five first-place votes and finished just one point behind Wittenberg in the poll with 70 points, while defending NCAC champion DePauw claimed one first-place vote and rounded out the top three in third-place with 66 points. Denison, which leads the league with eight championships, collected the final first-place vote and finished fourth in the poll with 58 points. The next four spots in the poll were each separated by just one point as Hiram was fifth (34), Kenyon was sixth (33), Wooster was seventh (32) and Ohio Wesleyan (31) was eighth, while Oberlin rounded out the poll in ninth-place with 10 points.
Wittenberg, which finished as the NCAC Tournament runners-up to Allegheny a year ago, return its top three hitters from last spring, including the senior duo of outfielder Laura Rose (Riverside, OH/Stebbins) and first baseman Kaitie Harrison (Springfield, OH/Kenton Ridge). Rose, a two-time All-NCAC first-team selection and also a member of the NCAC 30th Anniversary Softball All-Decade Team, was a key component to the Tigers' lineup a year ago as she hit .321 (36-of-112) with three doubles, three home runs, two triples, 21 RBI and 31 runs scored. She also was a threat on the base paths for the Tigers as she set the NCAC record for stolen bases in a season with 32. Harrison, also an All-NCAC first-team performer in 2013, led Wittenberg offensively last spring with a .390 batting average (41-of-105) to go along with seven doubles, two home runs, 25 RBI and 13 runs scored. In the pitching circle, the Tigers will rely on the right arm of senior Rachel Ross (Westerville, OH/South) who was third in the NCAC in 2013 with a 2.34 ERA after allowing 48 earned runs and striking out 90 in 143.2 innings of work. Ross posted an overall record of 17-6 and also allowed opposing hitters to just a .240 batting average (131-of-545). Leading the Tigers for the second year will be head coach Laura Matthews, who guided the Tigers to an overall record of 23-13 last spring, including a 10-6 mark against league foes.
Since the NCAC began sponsoring softball as a championship sport in 1998, five different teams have claimed conference championships. Denison leads the way in that grouping with eight titles (2001-03, '06, '07, 2009-11), while Allegheny has captured five (1998, '99, 2004, '08, '12), Ohio Wesleyan has three ('04, '05, '10) and DePauw ('13) and Wittenberg ('00) each have one.
Founded in 1983, the North Coast Athletic Conference is made up of ten academically selective colleges and universities - Allegheny College, Denison University, DePauw University, Hiram College, Kenyon College, Oberlin College, Ohio Wesleyan University, Wabash College, Wittenberg University and the College of Wooster, along with affiliate member, Earlham College (field hockey). The NCAC sponsors 23 championship sports, 11 for men and 12 for women.
2014 North Coast Athletic Conference Preseason Softball Coaches' Poll