Penn State Softball Begins Big Ten Play Hoping To Build On Non-Conference Stretch
Penn State (12-14) opens Big Ten play this weekend with one of the toughest tests of the conference slate — No. 19 Michigan at Ann Arbor’s 2,600-seat Alumni Field, one of the largest stadiums in college softball.
The Nittany Lions have been streaky to say the least, kicking off the season with an upset of then No. 4 LSU and sweeping at the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but following that up with a loss to sub-.500 Idaho State and dropping all three games by mercy rule to No. 6 Washington.
For the first time in her four seasons with the school, Penn State coach Amanda Lehotak is confident that her team can compete with the perennial-power Wolverines, whom the Nittany Lions haven’t defeated since 2007. It’s going to take a lot to defeat second team All-American Megan Betsa and her squad though.
“Going into it, we still think we have to play really good softball,” Lehotak said. “Almost perfect, and we haven’t done that yet this year. If our pitching could stay aggressive, we could limit our errors on defense.
Following a season where the Nittany Lions came just short of cracking an NCAA Tournament berth and recorded the second-most Big Ten wins in team history, Lehotak had a tough job on her hands to replace five regular starters.
Her team is right where she expected them to be at this point in the season, but with a few pleasant surprises.
“Where we were this year and last year in earned runs, allowed runs, and how many runs have we scored, we’re actually better at this point against a tougher schedule than we were last year being so senior heavy,” Lehotak said.
A lot of that is due to the success of players who didn’t see much playing time last season are having to begin the year.
Rebecca Ziegler has more than doubled her starts and at-bats from last season, and is leading the team in both batting average and RBIs. Senior Kristina Brackpool has also stepped up her play in 2017, second on the team in batting average with .341 — up from .230 last season.
She’s also noticing the success of younger players filling the void that some of the departures left — notably Toni Polk, who replaced standout shortstop Reina Furuya, and the catching duo of Mia Monopoli and Delaney Elling, who have the job of taking over for power slugger Alyssa VanDerveer.
“I think that Delaney Elling is doing a good job behind the plate and I think that Mia Monopoli is doing a good job behind the plate” Brackpool said. “I think both of them fighting for the same spot is a huge deal — they’re there every day, competing for the spot and I think that pushes them and motivates other players that aren’t starting to know that they have a shot to get in at any point.”
Even in spots where Lehotak felt her team was strong in, she’s seen new names step up and earn a spot on the field.
In the pitching circle, where the Nittany Lions returned four-year starter Marlaina Laubach and 2016’s freshman sensation Madison Seifert, Penn State has a new face getting innings with possibly the best rise ball on the team and an amazing curve ball, according to Lehotak.
Madey Smith, a freshman out of New Jersey, made her name known over the weekend after she earned a complete-game win over George Washington and helped close out against Niagara. She could be the ace heading into this weekend’s series, coming a long way from the start of practice back in the fall.
“Smith came in and it’s not a secret that she was not ready in the fall,” Lehotak said. “We were kind of like ‘what happened to you over summer?’ But I give that kid 100 percent credit that she zoned it in and she’s worked her tail off.”
Whether it’s Smith, Laubach, Seifert, or anyone else on the pitching staff, their work has been a success so far this year with the exception of an occasional multi-run inning. That’s been the decider in games this season and is a crucial fix ahead of Big Ten play.
“Some of the areas I’m not pleased with is that we’re allowing big innings,” Lehotak said. “We’re just a play away or if we just could’ve made this catch [we’d get out of the inning].”
For the Nittany Lions to repeat their conference success from last year, they’ll need to continue to build with their young team and work on the inconsistencies that have been a factor so far this season.