It’s do or die time now for Penn State softball.
Despite narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament, last season’s team took the program back to heights it hadn’t reached in recent years — the team’s first 30-win season since 2011, highest Big Ten regular season finish since 2000, and first Big Ten Tournament semifinal since 2002.
The Nittany Lions (22-32, 8-15 Big Ten) have struggled in 2017 to follow up their success from 2016, just barely sneaking into the Big Ten Tournament as the 12th and final seed.
Heading into the Nebraska matchup Thursday at 1:30 p.m., Penn State isn’t in a poor position despite facing a team that swept it just weeks ago. Coach Amanda Lehotak and her team remember the series well, marred by excessive errors throughout, an extra innings loss in the opener, and a blown four-run lead in the final inning of the second game.
Each of the matchups were tightly contested, and the Nittany Lions could have even won the series, but it’s those experiences that will propel them forward against the Cornhuskers.
“Our level of focus is at an all-time high right now because we were very upset coming away from that Nebraska series,” Lehotak said. “We got to finish. Nebraska’s a lot like us where they never quit, and we never quit until the last out. So we’ve got to do a better job of finishing and putting them away when we have the opportunity.”
For the second-straight year, Penn State will open its postseason against Nebraska. Last year’s battle was a Penn State victory 8-7 after a strong offensive performance.
If the Nittany Lions are going to be able to take down the Cornhuskers once again, they’ll need to be able to put runs on the board against whoever they face, whether it be Kaylan Jablonski — the 11-16 junior with an ERA of 4.36 — or Cassie McClure — the 11-8 senior that they chased from the Big Ten quarterfinals last year after back-to-back home runs.
Even though the order has strengthened from top to bottom since the beginning of the conference slate, the Penn State bats are still struggling to consistently perform. Tori Dubois, an All-Big Ten first team selection whose in-conference batting average of .457 ranks third in the Big Ten, is the hitter to watch for the Nittany Lions. Seniors Shelby Miller and Kristina Brackpool as well as lead-off hitter Rebecca Ziegler are also key pieces to break down opposing pitchers.
Hitting is crucial, but success in the pitching circle will decide whether Penn State can make a run in the Big Ten Tournament or not. Marlaina Laubach — who has an 11-11 record with a 3.41 ERA — has been given the nod by Lehotak for the opener against Nebraska, but depth behind the senior ace is a huge question mark without another pitcher recording a .500+ record.
Jessica Cummings and Madison Shaffer have been strong in recent outings, but both are lacking significant innings against top competition. On the other hand, both Madison Seifert and Madey Smith have gone toe-to-toe with the nation’s best teams in No. 21 LSU, No. 8 Washington, and No. 17 Michigan, but haven’t been able to make it out of the first inning often later on this year in Big Ten play.
Should Penn State win its opener, it’s possible Laubach could also be the starter Friday in the quarterfinals against Illinois. The all-time appearances leader in the circle for the Nittany Lions could probably play each of the four games if Penn State keeps winning and opponents can’t break her down, but heading to the bullpen when necessary is going to the unknown at this point.
Health of a number of players on staff is also a concern, but Lehotak has been able to narrow it down to three players she expects to take the bulk of the innings.
“Everyone’s kind of banged up right now,” Lehotak said. “I think the rest of the weekend, we’ll turn to [Laubach], Smith, and Shaffer.”
Every game of the Big Ten Softball Tournament will air live on BTN. Penn State plays its first game, and if it advances also a second game, at 1:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday. If the Nittany Lions can make a run, the team’s semifinal would be at 1 p.m. Saturday, likely against Minnesota — the tournament’s top seed and the nation’s No. 2 team. The championship game is also Saturday at 6 p.m.