Pitching is the foundation of any successful softball team.

Last May, DePauw lost three-time All-American Megan Soultz to graduation following a career in which she set NCAA Division III career records for games pitched and started and finished fourth in the national record book in wins and shutouts. Soultz’s prowess in the circle led DePauw to a fifth-place national finish in 2010.

Few people outside of the school’s Greencastle, Ind., campus thought that the Tigers could return to the NCAA Division III Finals, taking place this weekend in Salem, Va., but that is precisely what head coach Bonnie Skrenta’s squad was able to accomplish in winning the Adrian Regional last weekend.

“We graduated two senior pitchers last year,” said Skrenta. “Megan had the majority of the innings. At first, you don’t feel lucky that you’re graduating a senior pitcher like that, then you look around and see that our defense is identical to last year’s team other than the pitcher on the mound. Our pitcher doesn’t hit, so even our 1-9 batters are the same. All of those kids have seen so many innings, so I just feel really lucky.”

A strong senior class comprised of third baseman Brianne Weeks, second baseman Emma Minx and first baseman Ashlee Anton has led the way for the 2011 Tigers and helped ease sophomore Emily Bichler into her role as the team’s primary starting pitcher. Bichler has responded with a 29-9 record in 40 appearances this season.

“We knew we were going to be relying on a sophomore who really hadn’t seen significant time,” said Minx. “We knew two things needed to happen to support Emily: we needed to play phenomenal defense and we needed our offense to start producing more runs.”

The Tigers have responded offensively, scoring 7.39 runs per game to rank 14th in NCAA Division III. Three starters, Rachel MacBeth (.442), Minx (.408) and Weeks (.403) are hitting over .400 on the season. Defensively, the team leads the nation with a .975 team fielding percentage.

“I think our mental stability and mental toughness really shows when we’re playing good defense,” said Anton. “Even if we do make a mistake, you will always see us heads-up. It doesn’t matter. We are going to get the next one. That’s what is going to make the difference between good and great defense. Physical errors are going to happen, but we pride ourselves on making the play. I think that has really helped put Emily Bichler in the mindset of ‘yes, we can. I’m going to throw the ball and I’m going to pitch my heart out.’

“Having a good defense behind you making plays makes a big difference. We always emphasize making the routine play, then once you keep making those routine plays, the phenomenal ones are going to happen. It’s a treat to watch and be a part of it. That makes it so much fun to do.”

Anton’s senior season was disrupted by a degenerative disc in her back. Anton missed 23 games over four weeks from March 16 to April 10. She has played just 18 games entering the NCAA Finals this weekend, but is now pain-free and back in the lineup at first base.

“The worst feeling was at the start of spring break, going on that bus,” said Anton. “I had to go on there and tell them ‘you guys, I am so sorry but I can not come with you. It’s physically impossible for me to sit on a bus the whole trip and be OK.’”

That spring break trip included a March 24 doubleheader at then-No. 1 Emory, a gameday that would set the tone for the remainder of the season.

“That day, we were on the field with them and you know that every kid in their lineup can do so much damage, but we were in the game. We weren’t even in it, we were winning.”

DePauw won a back-and-forth battle in the first game of the doubleheader, 7-6, before the nightcap was called for darkness as a 9-9 tie after 10 innings of play.

“We were kind of off the radar,” said Minx. “It was early in our season and Emory was on a 26-game winning streak and ranked No. 1. We truly never gave up the fight, and to watch Emily oppose those batters in such a tough lineup and for our offense to put up so many runs, that was the point where everybody started to believe that we could make it back to Regionals and maybe the Finals.”

“After that game,” said Skrenta, “I told the team ‘you’re all in trouble now. Now I know how good you really can be, and you’re going to be expected to do that day in and day out.’ The seniors reiterated that. They turned to the whole team and said ‘All right, we knew it. Now you have to believe it. You did it. Now you have to do it every day.’ They’ve definitely stepped up to respond to that.”

DePauw’s senior class dominates the infield with Weeks at shortstop, Minx at second base and Anton at first base. Junior Jen Kosinski is the only non-senior, playing third base. That experience in the dirt has been critical to the Tigers success.

“We have a lot of experience,” said Minx. “Because of that, we don’t have to worry about plays and situations as much. It allows us to help Emily focus. I’ve seen an amazing growth in her throughout this season. I’ve seen her develop confidence in herself and her own abilities. My teammates make it easy.”

“This senior class came in and earned starting positions right away (as freshmen),” said Skrenta. “They have really led the team in such a great direction. They’re tremendous athletically but as people they are exactly the group you’d want mentoring a sophomore pitcher. As much as we, as a coaching staff, said ‘Emily, you do not have to fill a three-time All-American’s shoes,’ you know she’s going home at night with a load of pressure on her. Emma, Brianne and Ashley have really helped her manage that pressure.”

Minx is the team’s RBI leader, ranking 12th in the nation with a 1.37 RBI/game average (56 RBI in 41 games). That run production has been critical to her team’s success, but Minx plays down her role.

“I’m just trying to put a good bat on the ball and get a good hit,” said Minx. “If you look at our lineup, all of our hitters are up there with stats. There isn’t too much pressure on me to get a hit because I know if I don’t come through, there are people below me in the lineup who are just as capable of getting a hit. I don’t feel that pressure at all.”

With just days left in the 2011 season, Anton clearly has her goals set for a successful trip to Salem, Va. DePauw opens its NCAA Finals schedule at 4 p.m. ET on Friday, May 20, against Messiah. The Division III Champion will be crowned on Monday, May 23, at the James I. Moyer Complex.

“Since I did miss a lot of those games,” said Anton of her injury, “I wanted this season to be as long as possible. I don’t want this to ever end. Before the season I was interviewed by our campus radio station and was asked I felt a sense of urgency. I said I didn’t feel it at the time, but by golly after not being able to play for all of those games, you feel a huge sense of urgency when you’re almost done with your career and it’s been such a big part of your life.

“No matter if we are starters or non-starters,” said Anton, “we are strong head to toe, in and out. Our bench is the backbone of our team. They give it their all every single day. It’s important to recognize the work that everyone puts in whether you’re a starter or non-starter. Everyone has put in so much hard work and we have all seen the results.”

“I think this is a different DePauw softball team than we’ve seen in the past,” said Minx. “Nobody really expected us to do much because of our loss of Meg, but we’ve come out battling and I’ve been truly amazed. This team just battles and puts up runs and has such a fight in them that I think it’s really special.”