HELENA — Carroll College softball coach Aaron Jackson said he doesn’t know any other way to coach besides striving for championships.

Even if the program is barely five years old.

Jackson said he thinks an outsider might believe his program is ahead of schedule, but after investing in a new culture, a school-record 28 wins last season came as no surprise.

“From the start, this is where I wanted (this program) to be,” Jackson said. “The expectation at Carroll is that we win and compete for championships. It doesn’t matter if you are a first-year program or if you have been here for a 100 years, like football and basketball. That expectation is to be excellent.”

Now, the goal becomes building upon last season’s success.

“A strong culture and foundation and committing to that really makes a difference in the win-loss column,” Jackson said. "We changed our mindset on how we approach the day-to-day aspects and how we approach being great teammates.“

The Saints finished last season eight games back of Cascade Collegiate Conference champion Southern Oregon, but from the looseness of the players in the indoor batting cages, you wouldn’t think it.

“We are all pretty comfortable going into this season,” Carroll junior pitcher Ali Williams said during media interviews while trying not to laugh at distractions from her teammates. “This captures it. Everybody is just excited to be here and have a fun season together.”

Williams led the Saints in the circle with 13 wins and a 2.08 ERA. She was named to the all-CCC second team, but doesn’t put pressure on herself with a title such as team captain.

Sure, her statistics led the pitching staff in nearly every category and teammate junior infielder Anna ApRoberts returns as the team's leading hitter, batting .349 in 152 plate appearances last season. However, everyone wearing the Carroll logo knows they need to step up to have success.

Jackson has a firm belief in not picking captains.

“We believe each individual can be a leader. We expect everybody has the same expectations,” Jackson said. “We lead by a group mentality and we know that natural leaders are going to lead accordingly.”

Carroll has been practicing for the last month, but has been unable to get on dirt or grass because of the snow and freezing temperatures Helena has been getting.

So instead, the Saints had to make use of the space they had.

“We really make the most of every single rep we get inside,” ApRoberts said. “We focus on the fundamentals, attacking every ball and getting everything in the web.”

Their first opportunity to play on a softball field will be Friday morning, when the Saints travel down to Lake Elsinore, California, 30 miles south of Riverside, to complete in the NAIA Classic.

The three-day tournament will consist of eight games against top-25 teams such as No. 9 Hope University and No. 14 Vanguard University.

One perk of this season’s start is that temperatures will be up to 60 degrees warmer for the first few games.

“Advantage for us,” Jackson said. “It’ll be nice to get out of the bitter cold and onto some dirt.”

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Ryan Kuhn covers Carroll College athletics for the Independent Record and 406mtsports.com. Email him at ryan.kuhn@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @rskuhn

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