NORTH ADAMS >> Last year, the MCLA softball team got back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years. Getting there again is obviously a goal, but the Trailblazers are also shooting for their first winning season in 15 years.
"We're extremely prepared. Everyone's really excited," MCLA pitcher Rachel Quackenbush said just before the Trailblazers departed for their Florida trip.
The Traiblazers, under second-year coach Jamie Trudeau, started their Southern excursion with a 3-1 record.
MCLA, 15-22 last year, advanced to the NCAA Division III tournament where it lost to host Williams and Western New England in a sectional eventually won by WPI.
But MCLA hasn't been over .500 since going 23-15 in 2001. The Trailblazers just missed it in 2013, going 21-22, and losing to Bridgewater State in the MASCAC championship round. That year, the Bears came out of the losers bracket.
"That's a bar and a level for the program that we want to set every year," said Trudeau, when asked about the NCAA Tournament. "We don't want to just be competitive in our conference. We want to be competitive regionally and have a strong quality program.
"I talked to the players right at the beginning and say, we don't just want to be No. 1 in our conference, we want to make our mark regionally and we want to be competing for that NCAA tournament."
The Trailblazers come into 2016 as one of the preseason favorites in MASCAC. MCLA and Worcester State both had 41 points to share preseason No. 1 honors. MCLA did get one first-place vote, while Worcester had three first-place votes. Four teams, MCLA (1), Worcester (3), Bridgewater (1) and Salem (3) all had first-place votes in the coaches poll.
"There was definitely confidence, bit I think the confidence came from having the knowledge that they have the ability to achieve what they set out for," said the second-year coach. "Last year, we came in and the first few weeks were getting used to a new coach, a different style. We did a lot of fundamental work and broke a lot of things down.
"It took a little bit longer to get into a rhythm. This year, we came in right away and picked up where we left off last year."
However successful the Trailblazers will be this year will depend on whether Quackenbush can repeat what she did a year ago. A first-team, All-MASCAC pitcher a year ago, she led the league with a 1.65 earned-run average and 179 strikeouts.
"I am ready go to," said the senior pitcher. "I'm learning some new pitches and hope to implement them into my strategy."
Junior Katelyn Henault, who appeared in five games in the circle last year, will replace the graduated Amanda Meczywor as the other pitcher for the Trailblazers.
Offensively, MCLA returns its top six hitters, including former Mount Greylock player Michaela Dinicola, who led the team with a .328 batting average. Quackenbush hit .288, but led the Trailblazers with four home runs and 22 RBI. Dinicola and former Taconic player Sam Boyle are the lone Berkshire County players on this roster.
Freshman outfielder Katie Berghela has alread made her presence felt. One of two freshmen on the MCLA roster, she was the MASCAC rookie of the week last week.
"I think we can be very good. I think we can make it into regionals again," said Quackenbush.
Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.