After a regular season with more ups and downs than a Six Flags roller coaster, the Virginia Tech softball team travels to Lexington, KY this weekend for the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Hokies are the #3 seed in the region and will open play Friday at 5:00 against Notre Dame, the region’s #2 seed. In the nightcap, #4 seed Marshall will take on the host Kentucky Wildcats, the tournament’s overall #12 seed. All games in this Regional can be seen on ESPN3.
Here an overview of each team:
38-18 Overall, 13-11 in the SEC, USA Today Ranking #19, Final RPI #10, Strength of Schedule, #3
This is the 5th NCAA appearance for Kentucky, but their first time as a Regional host.
The Wildcats are battle tested in the SEC, the toughest softball conference in the country. So tough, in fact, that more SEC teams received NCAA bids (11) than played in the Conference tournament (10). The Wildcats went 9-14 against teams with RPI in the top 25, and 13-2 against teams rated 26-50. The Cats finished the regular season with a bang, winning 2 out of 3 against defending national champion and #5 RPI Alabama.
The Wildcats have a team batting average of .268 and average 4.8 runs per game. They may not sound impressive, but SEC pitching is pretty darn good (the Cats’ conference batting average is .254). They have 6 players with batting averages of over .300:
Kara Dill .361 – on base pct of .411; led the team in batting average last year (.351); injured earlier this year, but has returned
Lauren Cumbess, .335 – slugging pct. of .582; leads the team with 11 HRs
Griffin Joiner, 327 – slugging pct of .605; leads the team with 13 doubles and 41 RBIs
Nikki Sagermann, .303 – 6 HRs
Alice O’Brien, .301 – 7 HRs
Sylver Samuel., .300 – has 18 stolen bases in 19 attempts
In the circle, Kentucky is led by freshman Kelsey Nunley, who is 24-8 with a 2.10 ERA and 175 strikeouts in 230 innings pitched. When not playing first base, Lauren Cumbess serves as the #2 pitcher. Cumbess recorded a 1-7 record, with a 4.02 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 106 innings.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
43-13 Overall, 19-3 in the Big East, Final RPI #43, Strength of Schedule, #102.
This is Notre Dame’s 15th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
In stark contrast to Kentucky, Notre Dame’s conference opponents were not nearly as formidable. There are some really weak teams in the Big East, such as Seton Hall (#159), Georgetown (#168), and Villanova (#158). Consequently, the Big East is ranked as the #8 conference in RPI and 33 of the Irish wins came against teams ranked over 100 in RPI. The Irish went 2-5 versus teams with RPI in the top 25, and 3-5 against teams rated 26-50.
The Irish are an offensive juggernaut, posting a team batting average of .315 and averaging 5.8 runs per game. They will also run when necessary, having 79 stolen bases in 95 attempts. This could be a factor versus VT as the Hokies have allowed opponents an 80% success rate on the bases).
Notre Dame has 5 players with batting averages of over .300:
Emilee Koerner, .451 – ranks #13 nationally; led the Big East in hitting (.492 avg. in conference play)
Laura Winter, .354 – leads the team with 17 HRs and 52 RBIs
Kelsey Thornton, .338 – tied for team lead in stolen bases with 17 (21 attempts)
Jenna Smith, .320 – tied for team lead in stolen bases with 17 (23 attempts)
Amy Buntin, .310 – the fifth Irish player over .300
In the circle, Notre Dame is led by Big East Player of the Year Laura Winter, who was 29-10, with a 1.70 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 255 innings. It’s a pretty good bet, Winter will be a one-woman show, but if needed, the number 2 pitcher is Brittany O’Donnell, who has a 12-3 record, with a 3.17 record and 90 innings pitched (76 strikeouts).
Virginia Tech Hokies:
35-19 Overall, 9-11 in the ACC, Final RPI #38, Strength of Schedule, #51
This is the Hokies 6th NCAA softball tournament appearance.
The Hokies had a great start to the season, going 18-4 before ever playing a home game. But the team struggled once conference play started and almost played themselves out of the NCAA tournament. The Hokies went 2-4 against teams with RPI in the top 25 (wins versus Michigan and UCLA), and 3-6 against teams rated 26-50 (wins versus Arizona, UNC, and James Madison). The Hokies did take care of business against the weaker teams on their schedule, going 11-0 against teams with RPIs over 150 and 9-2 versus teams with RPIs between 101 and 150.
The Hokies have a team batting average of .275 and average 4.7 runs per game. Other than leadoff hitter Lauren Gaskill (19 SBs in 23 attempts), the Hokies are not much of a threat to steal bases (rest of the team: 22 SBs in 30 attempts)
Here are the Hokies with Batting Averages over .300:
Courtney Liddle, .380 – on base pct of .520; leads the team with 37 RBIs
Kylie McGoldrick, .364 – leads the team with 11 HRs; .slugging pct of .685
Kelsey Mericka, .306 – injured/missed the last 30 games; status is “murky” for NCAA
Lauren Gaskill, .302 – solid leadoff hitter
Dani Anderson, .300 –
The Hokies late season woes in the pitching circle are well known. After a tremendous start to the season, both senior Jasmin Harrell and freshman Kelly Heinz have struggled. Harrell seems to have lost her confidence and Heinz is battling a sore shoulder which has limited her effectiveness. Things reached the point in the ACC tournament, that coach Scot Thomas gave freshman Maggie Tyler her 6th start of the season and she responded admirably, giving up only 3 earned runs versus a very potent NC State squad. Scot Thomas said this week that all 3 pitchers might see action in Lexington, pointing to the fact that the Hokies “have a staff, not just one pitcher.” Whoever gets the ball iwin Lexington will have their work cut off for them.
Marshall Thundering Herd:
35-20 Overall, 13-10 in Conference USA, Final RPI #90, Strength of Schedule, #162
This is Marshall’s first ever NCAA softball bid.
The Herd earned their way into the NCAA tournament, winning conference tournament games against ECU, UAB, and Houston, giving up no earned runs in 21 innings. For the season, Marshall has played only two games against teams in the Top 25 RPI, losing 6-1 to Michigan in the season opener and 4-3 to Kentucky on April 9, a game that they led 3-1 going into the bottom of the 7th. In contrast, they have played 24 games against teams ranked over 150 in RPI, going 20-4.
Statistically, the Herd boasts a .270 team batting average, and average 4.3 runs per game. They have only hit 41 home runs, but they get off the bus running, having stolen 126 bases in 159 attempts. That ranks them second in the country in steals per game (2.24).
They have 4 regulars that hit .299 or better:
Ashkley Gue, .344 – leads the team in stolen bases with 33 in 39 attempts
Kaelynn Grfeene, .333 – leads team in hits (57), second in steals with 31 (in 36 attempts)
Jazmine Vale, .321 – leads the team with RBIs (29), doubles (14), and slugging pct (.569)
BriAnna Hope, .299 –
In the circle, the Marshall workhorse is Andi Williamson (32-16), who was the MVP of the Conference USA tournament, giving up zero earned runs in 3 games pitched. For the year, her 344 strikeouts (in 296 innings) ranks second in the country and she has an ERA of 2.01. It’s not likely that the Herd will go to a second pitcher, but if they do, Halie Vance is second on the team in innings pitched with 49.2. She has an ERA of 3.81.
Back in February, this Virginia Tech team was picked 4th in the preseason ACC poll. At that point, we probably would have been happy to simply receive an NCAA bid. But early season success quickly raised the level of expectations for this team and I think Hokie Nation would have been really bummed had we gotten snubbed Sunday night. I know I would have.
But now that they’re in it, why not win it? Yes, I’m looking through my orange and maroon glasses, but crazier things have happened. I said Sunday night that if we could somehow rediscover the early season mojo in the pitching circle, the Hokies could beat any of the three teams. I love having 3 potential arms to throw out there, and had we had even a second arm last year, we easily could have advanced out of Knoxville. Instead Jasmin simply ran out of gas and we went home. This year, we seem to have more arms, but the question is whether they can find their early season form.
Here’s hoping they do. Let’s GO HOKIES!!!!!