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Teams can often handle losing one or two players to injury. However, when a team starts losing several players at a time, even the deepest of teams tend to struggle. For Virginia Tech softball, the injuries just proved to be too much.
“Yeah, it was tough,” Thomas said. “I think the injuries were a huge part of what we were dealing with. I think the key part is, we knew it was going to be somewhat of a reload year anyway. So, from that standpoint, I told the team early, ‘We’re a good team, but we’re not a great team,’ and we were just going to try and see how it played out.”
To put this into perspective, here’s a list of players who at one point or another missed significant time this season — Mikaela Aiken, Chelsea Whitcomb, Aysha Richardson, Caitlyn Nolan, Vanessa Gonzalez, Kinsey Johnson, Carrie Eberle and Taylor Barnes. For good measure, Breanna Davenport played through injury all season, and Taylor Clark went down towards the end of season. In case you’ve lost count, which wouldn’t be all that surprising, that’s 10 players who either missed significant time or were forced to play through an injury for a large part of the season.
“As the season went along, it just got crazier and crazier,” Thomas said. “Our goal was to be a good team, and just be a better team, and see where it put us in the end. Hopefully, it was going to put us in the top half of the league, and that was before all the injuries hit.”
The injuries crippled the team, as Virginia Tech lost starter after starter. Mikaela Aiken was projected to be the workhorse in the rotation, but instead went down before the season even started.
“I’m not saying she was going to be a ‘savior pitcher’ necessarily, but we didn’t know,” Thomas said. “We didn’t get that opportunity. She was going to be somebody we thought was going to throw a lot of innings for us.”
Chelsea Whitcomb, who pitched and played in the infield, broke her hand sliding into a base and missed about seven weeks. Aysha Richardson, another two-way player for Virginia Tech, went down on two separate occasions, hurting her arm and then taking a softball to the eye. Shortstop Caitlyn Nolan tore her ACL midway through the season against Elon, taking away another key contributor for the Hokies.
“I thought that was kind of a back-breaker, because she was a heart and soul type of kid,” Thomas said of Nolan. “Losing her was huge. I think we saw the team go, ‘Ok, here’s a nucleus-type kid and we’re losing her.’”
In large part due to these injuries, Virginia Tech never seemed to get off the ground. The Hokies held their own to begin the season, starting 8-3. The Hokies even won their first ACC series against Virginia, but then hit the skids against Florida State. Tech lost consecutive ACC series against the ‘Noles, North Carolina and Notre Dame, as Virginia Tech limped to a 5-19 conference record and finished 19-34 overall.
“By the end of it, as we’ve said, you’re kind of going to a sword fight with a pocket knife,” Thomas said. “It’s just tough.”
The 2017 season marked the second consecutive underwhelming finish for Virginia Tech softball. The Hokies finished 29-28 in 2016, and haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2015. The lack of recent success has sparked concern among some of the Virginia Tech fanbase that a change in leadership is needed. Thomas said that as of right now, that doesn’t seem to be on the table.
“It’s not a conversation we’ve had,” Thomas said. “We’re two years away from being in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a tougher league, and we were one of the last programs to get an indoor facility. We’ve been kind of playing behind the eight ball on that. I think there’s a lot of other things we have to look at, but overall, I think there’s an understanding of what we went through, even in a reload year. I think the tough part was the ACC, as a whole, was not having the type of year that we’re used to having as a league. It was a good year for us, had we had everybody, I think we would’ve been fine.
“I’m sure there’s some people out there questioning it. We didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year, and we were told we were the 65th team. If we make the NCAA Tournament last year, and all of a sudden we have all these injuries, what are people saying?”
Maybe Thomas has a point. Virginia Tech returns all of their roster next year, save for Vanessa Gonzalez and Elizabeth Birle. Despite the injuries, the Hokies were still a force offensively, hitting .281 on the season and combining for 54 home runs, which was third in the ACC this season. The Hokies will presumably get all of those injured offensive players back from injury, and also are bringing in a recruiting class that Thomas thinks “could be the best one we’ve ever had.”
Virginia Tech signed pitchers Jordan Dail and Keely Rochard, who might just be the two best pitchers in the state. Dail is a two-time VHSL Pitcher of the Year, while Rochard was named the 2016 Daily Press Player of the Year and Female Athlete of the Year.
“When you look at Jordan Dail and Keely Rochard, they pitched against each other in the state finals last year in a one-run ballgame,” Thomas said. “They’re the real deal.”
Thomas thinks that with Dail and Rochard, the Hokies’ pitching rotation could be one of the best in the ACC.
“We’re excited about the kids coming back,” Thomas said. “We think Carrie (Eberle) is going to be much better, we’ll get Mikaela (Aiken) back, Taylor (Barnes). When you get into a four-depth with two kids coming in who can really get it done, that’s key.”
Along with Dail and Rochard, Virginia Tech has added Cana Davis, who Thomas bills as “one of the top hitters in the state.” Tech also signed Sammi Miller from Ohio, who was a high school All-American before missing her senior season because of injury. Darby Trull is another member of the incoming class, and is expected to add speed to the lineup.
Add all of those pieces together, plus the coaching experience of Thomas, Angela Tincher O’Brien and Justin Miller, and maybe Virginia Tech softball will prove that this season’s disappointment was a fluke.
“I think that we can compete. Our whole goal is to compete for ACC titles,” Thomas said. “I think a lot of this league was in a transition season, and it’ll be interesting to see what everybody else brings in. We can say what we’re going to be about, but then a lot of times we’re forgetting what everyone else is going to be about. I think we can compete for an ACC title. I think we can compete in that upper half.
“Florida State is the team to beat right now, and they’ve got a lot of good pieces to the puzzle. They are really good. They’re No. 1 for a reason. But, I think on any given day, any of us can really step up our program and make that happen, but it’s not going to be easy. I do think we can compete at the top of the league and try to make it happen.”