In a little over a week and a half, the Virginia Tech softball season will be underway. In the meantime, it’s been back on the grind for the Hokies as they’ve gotten firmly into their practice schedule.
That in itself provides a difficult task in the grueling winters of Blacksburg as Tech rotates between practicing outside and inside depending upon the weather.
“I think our focus has been really good,” said head coach Scot Thomas. “Sometimes I’m looking for things to be tough on them about and make sure that we’re not doing things halfway, but to be honest with you I really think we have worked pretty hard. There’s a focused mentality piece that we need to have from being outside then being in the indoor facility, and I think they have handled it very well. I’m excited about all of that and the preparation piece. Everyone is working hard.”
During this practice time, Thomas has put an emphasis on trying to get some live action going so the team can be prepared once the season arrives. That combined with putting in the extra effort on some of the smaller tasks should prepare the Hokies for the upcoming games.
“We’ve gotten to do some live hitting with some live pitching on two occasions,” Thomas said. “We basically scrimmaged last week. This time a year it’s hardly ever that we get a chance to do that. Everything that we’ve been doing is about building up to where the pitchers throw live, and we can see some live pitchers. Otherwise, it’s all fundamental stuff. It’s all situational stuff. The things we’re going to see the most, we practice the most. Like sac bunts in bunt situations for example. We’ve done rundowns, we’ve done different defensive situations. Runners on first and third or runner on second and a base hit versus a double in the gap. We’ve done all of that stuff. It’s just a matter of trying to get some repetitions in the situations given our limitations with indoor and outdoor.”
The Hokies start their season on February 10 against Indiana State all the way on the West Coast. In fact, Virginia Tech is a part of the Sportco Tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada. During the tournament, the Hokies are already slated to play Indiana State as aforementioned along with UNLV, CSU Bakersfield, and Southern Utah.
“We’re utilizing that opportunity to go out there,” said Thomas. “A lot of times we’ll see a Pac-12 team. It didn’t turn out that way this time, but that being said we’re going to go out there, play hard, try to gain some confidence. Some of the teams we’re playing we really don’t know that much about. It’ll be a learning experience. Hopefully it’s positive and we win some ballgames.”
The biggest question for Virginia Tech going into the season is how they’ll replace Maggie Tyler’s presence on the mound. Her graduation leaves a gaping hole that’ll need to be filled. Tyler finished her senior season with 23 wins (4th in ACC), 245 strikeouts (1st in ACC), and 242 innings pitched (2nd in ACC). The Hokies have some talented arms, but they have yet to be tested.
“We’ve got Aysha Richardson who really hadn’t pitched that much, and she’s really doing well,” said Thomas. “She’s a heck of an athlete. Olivia Lattin, who threw for us some last year, will be somebody we count on. Primarily, she’s going to be second base. When you look at Chelsea [Whitcomb] and Mikaela [Aiken] as kind of the leaders, we hope that they’re going to give us some positive innings. Carrie Eberle is the one that we brought in as more of a pitcher-specific type of kid, although she can hit. She’ll fit more of a [Designated Player] role when she gets that opportunity. Taylor Barnes was a State Player of the Year as a pitcher, so we’re excited about the whole bunch. It could be pitcher by committee a little bit, but we can get it done that way too.”
Such depth in the pitching staff can be looked at as a blessing or a curse. Thomas has so many arms that he can count on to get the job done, but he still doesn’t have the one ace who he can throw out there and expect to dominate on a daily basis yet. Because of that, assistant coach Angela Tincher O’Brien has been hard at work to help develop and hopefully mold the pitchers into reliable options who Thomas can call upon.
“What she’s [Angela Tincher O’Brien] charged with is taking each pitcher and utilizing what they’re best at and trying to develop that,” said Thomas. “Whether it’s Olivia with a pretty good change-up or Carrie Eberle who’s going to throw more down and get ground balls versus some athletic movement out of a Chelsea Whitcomb. Her job is to be able to look at each pitcher, utilize what they’re able to do, and then primarily it’s all about spinning the ball, making the ball move, making balls look like strikes. I think the biggest thing for this staff right now is don’t give up the freebies and keep the ball in the park. If we can do those two things we’ll be in good shape.”
One key player who the Hokies do return is sophomore catcher Lauren Duff. As a freshman, Duff had a standout season, earning ACC Freshman of the Year honors. Duff batted .347 with five home runs and 20 runs batted in, along with a .442 on base percentage. Now, the hope for Duff is that she avoids the dreaded sophomore slump, but instead sees continual improvement in her game.
“I’m sure she wants to hit a little more consistently over the long haul, but she did a heck of a job for us last year,” said Thomas. “It’s hard to complain about anything that she did. I think a lot of it is about not having a backslide. Maintain what she’s done and if she improves on it, great. I’d rather see some of her teammates step it up to where she was. Lauren’s a great player. She’s in great shape. She has one of the best arms in the country, if not the best. I don’t know anyone better. She hit the ball really well. She had some big hitting streaks for us last year. I think sometimes when you have someone who comes back with that type of year that your expectations aren’t too high. You don’t want to put the pressure on them to where they have to feel like they need to be something more than we really need. We need her to be at least what she was last year, and I think she’ll be at least that.”
As Thomas mentioned, he needs some of his players to step up so the Hokies can take it to the next level after finishing 29-28 in the 2016 campaign. Part of the inconsistency that Tech dealt with last year had to do with the injury issues they faced.
“From an overall standpoint, we’ve had some of them who have had some injuries and so forth,” Thomas said. “Last year, Chelsea Whitcomb and Jessie Mehr, and they have looked really good so far. Some of these pitchers have to step up like we talked about. I think up the middle Olivia [Lattin] hit the ball really well, Caitlyn Nolan as well. Breanna [Davenport] has been pretty solid the whole time, but she had some injury issues last year. If we can stay out of the injury bug and just let everyone get a flow into the game, then that should be a big positive. I think every one of those that I just mentioned had some type of injury. We are deep in positions, but there’s several of them who I think has a higher ceiling so hopefully the injury bug won’t get in the way.”
So what kind of expectations do the Hokies have for the season? Despite the 29-28 record last year, the Hokies were near the top of the ACC standings, finishing the year 13-11 in conference play. It was the non-conference schedule where the Hokies had some difficulties, going 16-17 with an eight game losing streak included. Part of those struggles in non-conference play had to do with the fact that they faced national powers in No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Michigan, and No. 18 Minnesota a combined six times. If the Hokies want to return to the NCAA Tournament in 2017, then it will have to start with a strong start in non-conference play.
“I charged the seniors and the team with coming up with their own team motto this year and they came up with, ‘Never me, always we,’” said Thomas. “I think that says a lot about the focus that they have in understanding that it has to be a team aspect to what we’re doing. Being the best person that we can be and being the best player that we can be and being the best teammate that we can be. I think they’re buying into that, and I think they’re understanding that the big picture is the team. Right now we’re in good shape.”
The Hokies have the right mindset for a successful season, they just have to find a way for all the pieces to fit together.