Penn State softball returns to the diamond this weekend for its fourth season under coach Amanda Lehotak.
After a breakout season in 2016 that saw the Nittany Lions reach the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament and just miss out on an NCAA berth, Lehotak has high expectations for her team despite losing five starters from last year’s successful team.
The centerpiece of the Nittany Lions will be their pitching staff. The two main starting pitchers from last year’s roster, senior Marlaina Laubach and sophomore Madison Seifert, return after earning a combined 24-18 record in the circle in 2017.
Laubach, a fourth-year starter out of Northampton, PA, is the experience that holds the team together. Earning 72 starts in her three years of action thus far, the veteran is ready to close out her Penn State career strong.
Seifert, a Wildwood, MO, native that went 12-5 during her freshman campaign, returns having already experienced a full season as one of the primary options on the roster.
For Lehotak, this duo will be the driving force behind her team’s success.
“I think our pitching staff right now, based on fall and spring, is probably the strongest part of our team,” Lehotak said. “That’s kind of the one-two punch. The greatest thing about them is that they set each other up. [Laubach] can’t win without [Seifert] and [Seifert] can’t win without [Laubach].”
This year, however, Lehotak believes her pitching staff can go deeper than it has before. Sophomore Madison Shaffer is knocking on the door for some innings in the circle after a strong offseason. The often injured junior Jessica Cummings is also lining herself up a spot to return and make an impact.
“When we go into a three-game series, we’re going to talk about 21 innings,” Lehotak said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of different looks throughout 21 innings and I’m very, very excited about our entire pitching staff.”
Replacing A Strong Batting Order
The Nittany Lions graduated four starters in their batting order in 2016. Without reliable hitters Macy Jones, Lexi Knief, and Erin Pond stepping into the batter’s box anymore, finding new faces to step in is critical if Penn State is going to have success early in the season.
The biggest loss to Penn State’s roster was not a senior. Starting catcher and leading home run hitter Alyssa VanDerveer transferred to South Carolina after an impactful sophomore season. The New Jersey native told Lehotak she was leaving for personal reasons in August.
With four of the top five Nittany Lions in batting average during the 2016 season now gone, it appeared like hits would be tough to come by as Penn State struggled to score in fall ball against Kent State, St. Francis, and Bucknell.
Originally worried, Lehotak has seen a development in the lineup in the lead up to this season, citing players like sophomore designated hitter Tori Dubois as those with the potential to fill some gaps.
“Offensively, I’m actually more comfortable than I thought I was at the end of last year,” Lehotak said. “We expect our youth to step up, and now with that year of development, they’re doing really well. If they’re hitting like they are in practice, we could potentially be better one through nine than we’ve been.”
First and foremost, impact players will need to return to the top form they displayed last season. Senior third baseman Shelby Miller is the only returning player that batted above .300 in 2016. The speedy junior slap hitter Mollie Sorenson continues to catch Lehotak’s eye for the work she does to get on base and move base runners along.
After that, the team kind of moves into the unknown. Dubois, sophomore Toni Polk, redshirt sophomore Rebecca Ziegler, and senior Kristina Brackpool all received a ton of at-bats in 2016 and could potentially improve to a .300 average with an extra year of experience.
Catcher Delaney Elling is the most likely freshman to make an impact this season after getting a number of starts during the fall. Other new faces to look for include junior Gianna Arrizurieta, senior Sam Shanahan, senior Jessica Haug, and redshirt junior Mia Monopoli.
2016 was always going to be a difficult season to follow up for the Nittany Lions. Posting the team’s best record in Lehotak’s tenure, making it further in the Big Ten tournament than it’s been since 2002, and sweeping a record three Big Ten schools for the first time in three-game series format, Penn State has a tough road ahead to meet those standards.
Yet, there’s still a lot of confidence in the locker room heading into the opening games Friday.
“We’re going to have a completely new look on the field,” Lehotak said. “I think it’s an exciting look, I think it’s a more athletic look, and I think we’re actually deeper one through 20 than we’ve been since I’ve been here. We’re very young and youth always brings interesting things at times. But overall, I would say the team’s very optimistic and we’re excited about the year.”
Penn State begins its season this weekend with a grueling tournament in Baton Rouge, LA against No. 5 LSU, nearly-ranked Oklahoma State, and mid-major power McNeese State — all played in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
The road simmers down a bit until conference play with a number of tournaments including the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Colorado State Classic, and the Husky Classic in Washington.
The Nittany Lions open the home stretch at Beard Field in mid-March with series against St. Francis, Towson, and Robert Morris before opening Big Ten Play with No. 4 Michigan on the road.
The schedule is a bit tougher than last season, but a similar record would certainly produce a better RPI — the ranking that held the Nittany Lions back from an NCAA Tournament berth. If Penn State can produce results like last season, a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2011 is right there for the taking.