JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A familiar face will be taking the reins of the Jacksonville University softball program as assistant coach Erica Ayers will lead the Dolphins following head coach Jennifer Steele's departure for Marshall University.
"I would like to thank Alex Ricker-Gilbert and his staff for the tremendous opportunity and privilege to lead this program," said Ayers. "I believe wholeheartedly in the vision that President Tim Cost, [Sr. Vice President of University & Academic Affairs] Donnie Horner and Alex have for JU Athletics and the University as a whole. I owe Jen Steele a thank you as well for believing I could help her build this program two years ago and continuing to believe in me now. A wonderful foundation has been set and I am beyond excited to see how far we can go."
"Erica is the right person to step in as head coach of our softball program at Jacksonville University," said Ricker-Gilbert. "Her experience is vast, and she is ready for the opportunity. The future for our softball program is bright and I couldn't be more excited for Erica and our student-athletes."
Ayers came on staff in 2016 and immediately made an impact. She is a 17-year coaching veteran, and came to JU after six seasons at Georgetown. Her resume is decorated by 13 All Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) selections, one CAA Rookie of the Year, and one CAA Player of the Year at George Mason, and nine All Big East honorees with the Hoyas.
"I have had the distinct honor and privilege of working with Erica for many years. Her passion, drive, and knowledge of the game is second to none," said Pat Conlon, head softball coach at Georgetown. "I can't think of another person more deserving. I am excited to see the impact that Erica has on the Jacksonville Athletics Department and her student-athletes."
In just two years with Jacksonville, her defensive efforts saw the team drop its error total from 100 to just 62 while its hitting improved from .240 to .274. Since arriving at JU, six Dolphins have garnered All-ASUN Conference Team honors, along with an ASUN Scholar-Athlete of the Year and CoSIDA All-District Selection.
The program remains in good hands with Ayers, as the Dolphins won 30 games in 2017 – tying the most wins in four years and becoming just the sixth team in the program's history to win at least that many. JU also finished the season eighth in the nation and set the school's single season stolen bases record with 113, with help from its .355 on-base percentage and going deep into counts to draw 146 walks on the year.
"My plan is simple," said Ayers, "we will strive for excellence on a daily basis in the classroom, on the softball field, and in the community."
"Jen's departure is bittersweet for me," Ricker-Gilbert added. "I have worked with Jen for a long time, both at JU and Longwood, so seeing her depart is difficult. At the same time, I am extremely proud of what she has done here at Jacksonville for our university, department, and student-athletes. Marshall is getting one of the best in the business and I wish her nothing but the best in her next venture."
Steele joined the Dolphins before the start of the 2015 season, and compiled a record of 86-83 with notable wins over Syracuse, Stanford, Yale, North Carolina State, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Penn State. She will be serving as the head coach at Marshall, a program ranked No. 24 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll.
"My time at Jacksonville has been invaluable, and I cannot begin to express my gratitude. I have been fortunate to work under two great leaders in both Donnie [Horner] and Alex [Ricker-Gilbert], and their support, belief, and commitment to both me and our softball program has been incredible. JU took a chance on me as a young head coach, and for that, I will forever be indebted. People are passionate about this school and it is easy to see why. The relationships I have built here will last a lifetime and I am thankful to have worked with so many tremendous student-athletes, faculty, staff, donors, and supporters of Jacksonville University.
"I am proud of what we built in the past three seasons, and am ecstatic to see Erica take the reins, as she is very deserving. She is a tireless worker, one of the best defensive skill developers in the country, and loves our student-athletes. The program is in the best hands with her at the helm and I couldn't be more excited for her, our athletes, or JU."