WINTHROP, Mass. - The University of Saint Joseph softball team was selected to finish fifth this season in the annual Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) Preseason Coaches' Poll as announced by the league's front office on Thursday afternoon. The Blue Jays will open up the 2018 season at the Fastpitch Dreams Classic on March 10, as they take on Lesley at 9:30 a.m. at the North Myrtle Beach Sports Complex in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Three-time defending GNAC champions, Johnson & Wales University, was predicted to finish as the top team in the conference, receiving 168 total points and 12 of the 13 first-place votes from the league's head coaches. The Wildcats were followed by Suffolk who garnered 150 points and the remaining first-place vote, while Saint Joseph's Maine was picked third with 139 poll points.
Albertus Magnus was slotted fourth with 138 points followed by the Blue Jays with 102 points to round out the top five teams in the poll. They were followed by Simmons in sixth and Emmanuel in seventh who earned 98 and 92 points, respectively. Norwich was tabbed eighth with 90 points ahead of Mount Ida (58), Regis (49), Rivier (43), Lasell (37), and Anna Maria (19).
USJ is coming off a 2017 campaign where they finished fifth in the GNAC regular season standings with a conference record of 13-9 and an overall record of 20-17. It marked the Blue Jays' seventh 20+ win season in the past eight years and the eighth straight season where they finished inside the top eight to qualify for the GNAC Postseason Tournament.
The Blue Jays return 12 members from last year's roster including a pair of All-GNAC Second Team players in junior Morgan Skoly (Vernon, Conn.) and sophomore Amaria Sharon (Tolland, Conn.). Skoly, USJ's leadoff hitter and starting centerfielder, led the team in average (.441), runs scored (26), and stolen bases (8) on the year and her .441 average was third-best across the league. Sharon was the workhorse as a freshman for the Blue Jays a season ago as USJ's number one option inside the circle and middle of the order bat. In 31 appearances inside the circle, she posted a record of 18-10 with a 2.43 ERA in 170 innings pitched with 104 strikeouts to just 26 walks. She twirled 21 complete games. Offensively, she led the squad in hits (48), doubles (11), home runs (2), RBI (38) and was second on the team in average at .414.
For the second consecutive year, the Blue Jays field a relatively young team. Last season USJ was without a senior and this season they have just one in shortstop Sarah Ercoli (East Granby, Conn.). Ercoli posted a .297/.341./314 slash line with 16 RBI a season ago and the Blue Jays will look to her for leadership as the captain of the infield.
Six freshmen join the team this season to complete the 18-member roster, including pitcher Alessandra Milardo (Plantsville, Conn.) who USJ will look toward to lighten some of the load for Sharon inside the circle.
The USJ softball team will open up the season on March 10 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. against Lesley at 9:30 a.m. in its first game of the Fastpitch Dreams Classic.