By Blake Moore
ADA — Despite a young, inexperienced roster returning just six letterwinners, the Ohio Northern softball program captured the attention of the Ohio Athletic Conference and put together an impressive 2019 campaign under third-year head coach Jackie Price.
"The leadership from our juniors and seniors helped set the expectations for the newcomers to our program this year," Price remarked. "Our freshman definitely stepped up and came through in big moments this season, allowing us to be successful as a program."
"The players we had on the team are great kids and great athletes. They performed well this season and played consistently every day, something we talk about each practice."
This season, the Polar Bears compiled a 23-19 overall record and a 14-4 mark in conference action for runner-up honors in the final league standings. For the effort, ONU recorded its 14th straight upper-division finish in the OAC and its sixth successive winning season.
Northern also earned its second consecutive and 24th all-time trip to the OAC postseason.
With the No. 2 seed in the OAC Tournament, Ohio Northern rebounded from a game-one loss to third-seeded Baldwin Wallace to reach the championship series against fourth-seeded Otterbein. The Orange and Black finished the postseason tournament with a 2-2 record after dropping the title game 13-7, giving the program its sixth tournament runner-up finish in school history.
"It was an interesting weekend - we were unsure when we would play given the weather," Price stated regarding a rain-riddled OAC Tournament. "Our athletes came out and stayed focused, allowing us to have success in this year's tournament. I was very proud of their effort and how they battled through a challenging weekend."
During the postseason tournament, Price earned her 100th career coaching victory in a 2-1 victory over top-seeded Muskingum. She now has 101 career wins, including 80 victories at her alma mater after compiling 21 wins in two seasons at Hiram.
Senior infielder Hailee Loughman (Brookville) and junior catcher Gabby Stewart (Union, Ky./St. Henry) headlined the postseason awards haul after recording National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Central Region honors. The former was named First-Team All-Region, while the latter picked up Second-Team kudos.
Loughman and Stewart each received their first career All-Central Region nod with the announcement. The duo was listed among 364 total players recognized across the NCAA's eight regions across the country.
All NFCA member coaches in each NCAA Division III region nominate and vote upon players for their performance during the season. The NFCA then creates three 15-player teams in each region for their annual awards list.
Loughman led the Polar Bears and ranked fifth in the conference with a .433 batting average this season. She also led ONU with 55 hits, 14 doubles, a .493 on-base percentage, and a .630 slugging percentage while ranking second on the team with 34 RBI.
The Brookville native is currently tied for seventh in program history with 14 career home runs and ranks eighth all-time with 35 career doubles. She stands 14th all-time at Ohio Northern with 143 career base hits and sits 27th in career batting average at a .349 clip.
Loughman was also named a CoSIDA Google Cloud Academic All-District 7 recipient, First-Team All-OAC honoree, an OAC All-Tournament Team selection, Academic All-OAC honoree, and an OAC Hitter of the Week this season. She graduates from ONU as a three-time All-OAC honoree and a three-time Academic All-OAC selection.
Meanwhile, Stewart led ONU and finished fifth in the OAC with 36 RBI in 2019. She additionally ranked second on the team in hits (53), runs (28), doubles (10), home runs (4), and slugging percentage (.556) and ended third with a .393 batting average.
The junior currently owns 145 career hits through her first three seasons, which ties for 13th-most in program history. Stewart is also tied for eighth all-time with 103 RBI, tied for ninth with 33 career doubles, tied for tenth with 11 home runs, and ranks 15th with a .372 batting average.
Additionally, she has been named a 2019 First-Team All-OAC honoree, a 2018 OAC All-Tournament Team, and a one-time Academic All-OAC selection during her career.
Loughman and Stewart joined five Ohio Northern student-athletes on the 2019 All-OAC squads.
Loughman, Stewart, senior pitcher Kaitlin Surdej (Lancaster, N.Y./Central), and freshman outfielder Rachel Hish (Gainesville, Va./Patriot) were all named First-Team All-Conference. Additionally, junior infielder Brady Guest (Convoy/Crestview) and freshman outfielder Abby Elliott (Loveland/Ursuline) garnered Second-Team accolades, and junior Alicia Swierz was tabbed Honorable Mention.
Loughman became a three-time All-OAC honoree; Stewart, Surdej, and Guest each were named for the second straight season; and Hish, Elliott, and Swierz garnered their first career all-conference accolades.
Surdej garnered her second straight all-conference award after being named Honorable Mention last season. She was also recognized as an OAC All-Tournament Team honoree in 2019.
The Lancaster, New York product posted a 15-10 overall record in the circle this season. She led the Polar Bears with a 2.99 ERA, 97 strikeouts, 22 complete games, and four saves in a team-high 175.1 innings pitched.
Surdej also topped the league in saves and ended third in strikeouts and overall wins this year.
The senior leaves the program second in career strikeouts (342) and third in career wins (47) and innings pitched (533.2) at Ohio Northern.
Hish secured her first career all-conference award after finishing second on the team with a .403 batting average, primarily from the leadoff spot. She also led the team with 29 runs and ended third in hits (48) and on-base percentage (.450).
Hish adds the All-OAC honor to her first OAC All-Tournament Team accolade.
Guest returns to the All-OAC honors list after being named First-Team All-OAC in 2018.
She led the team and tied for third in the league with six home runs. She also ranked third on the team with 28 RBI and 25 runs scored, fourth with 47 base hits, and fifth in batting average with a .359 mark.
The Convoy native currently sits tied for tenth on the program's all-time home run list with 11 career big flys. She is also a member of the school's .300 Club with a .364 career clip and sits six just hits away from joining Ohio Northern's 100-Hit Club.
Elliott had a strong freshman season in which she appeared in all 42 games for the Polar Bears.
She compiled 39 hits on a .317 batting average and contributed 18 RBI, 18 runs scored, and six doubles during the campaign.
Swierz played in all 42 games this season, primarily in center field. She posted a career-high .328 batting average with 40 hits, 21 runs, 15 RBI, and a home run.
The junior currently owns a .292 career batting average, 80 hits, 38 RBI, 51 runs, and two home runs. She was also named to the NCAA Division III Notre Dame All-Regional Tournament Team and Academic All-OAC squad during her career.
Loughman and Swierz also received league attention for their efforts inside the classroom this season, earning Academic All-OAC kudos from the conference office. The former is now a three-time honoree, and the latter picks up her second straight academic award.
The Polar Bears kicked off the 2019 season with their annual Spring Break trip to Florida, competing in the Sunkissed Games in Plant City. Ohio Northern compiled a 5-5 record on the southeastern journey, including a 4-3 upset victory over No. 20 St. Benedict (Minn.).
"I think Florida helped us decide which players were going to fill roles on our team and what changes were necessary for our lineup," Price mentioned. "There were definitely moments when we shined, including our win over St. Benedict, but there were also some downs as we established our identity this season."
Upon returning to the Midwest, ONU kicked off its conference slate and an eight-game home stand with a split against league foe Heidelberg. The Polar Bears then dropped a doubleheader to Trine (Ind.) and split a doubleheader with Wooster to end the month of March.
From there, Ohio Northern rattled off 10 straight victories in OAC action with sweeps over Wilmington, Capital, Mount Union, No. 24 Baldwin Wallace, and John Carroll.
"This run set us up extremely well for the OAC Tournament," Price stated. "It helped our upperclassmen show the freshmen how we needed to play in order to be successful in conference play and reach the postseason. Our early conference schedule set the expectations for the team, and the players took care of business winning those games."
The Polar Bears won four of their next six contests following their 10-game win streak, including a split with Otterbein and a two-game sweep against Marietta to secure their spot in the OAC Tournament.
After dropping their final six contests, Ohio Northern rebounded for a runner-up effort in the 2019 OAC Tournament held at Muskingum's Donna J. Newberry Field in New Concord.
"We will definitely miss Kaitlin and Hailee next season, but we look forward to building on our success from this year," Price noted. "Kaitlin has come a long way and proved how talented she is during her senior season. She was our workhorse on the team, and any coach wants a player like her on the team. Hailee has been the most consistent player throughout the year and came through in big moments for our team. She also makes sure she holds her teammates accountable and can be relied on to make a play when it is needed."