Many collegiate athletes come into their freshman year and struggle with the transition. It’s usually the first time they’re away from their parents for an extended period of time. They have to learn how to manage their workload between classes and practices, while still living the college experience. However, Virginia Tech softball’s Lauren Duff was an exception to this standard last year in her freshman season.
In 2016, Duff put up staggering numbers, batting .347 with five home runs, 20 RBIs, and a .605 slugging percentage en route to earning ACC Freshman of the Year honors. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Duff, as she still had to make several adjustments during her freshman year.
“High school is definitely a lower level than college,” Duff said. “In college, everybody is up to par with your level. In high school I was kind of the star because I was a lot better than everybody else, but college is just so much more intense. Lifting and conditioning definitely are extremely hard and the games are definitely more stressful.”
For Duff, the transition might have been easier than others because of the constant travel that came with having her father in the Armed Forces.
“My dad is in the Coast Guard so I’ve lived in a lot of states,” said Duff. “I was born in Hawaii, but I only lived there until I was two so I don’t remember much. I lived in Tennessee, Texas, and Washington before I came to Virginia.
“It was stressful. I mean it’s a lot easier since I was a kid and so I didn’t really care that much, but I can’t imagine doing it now, over and over again. I think that’s probably why I’m so quiet though is because I was just never able to get close with anybody.”
While Duff carries a quiet demeanor, her game commands a loud presence on the diamond. In fact, Coach Scot Thomas and the rest of the staff hope to see continual improvement from Duff heading into her sophomore season.
“I think the coaches just expect more of me because they have something to base it off of,” Duff explained. “I guess I have to do better than ACC Freshman of the Year this year, like I constantly have to keep moving forward on everything.”
Firmly in their fall ball season, the Hokies have been busy with several scrimmages against the likes of Milligan College, Liberty, and West Virginia Wesleyan, among others. It’s during this time, along with practices, that Duff has been working on developments to her intangibles as a leader and her defensive work behind the plate.
“I definitely feel in the aspect of being a leader on the field, I’m not as good as a leader as I should be,” said Duff. “Being that I’m the catcher and am supposed to be the main person. Usually I’m pretty quiet so that’s probably my biggest downside that I need to work on.
“I’ve been trying to throw more accurately to second base, trying to throw more runners out, and definitely blocking because passed balls were a big thing of mine last year.”
This year, Duff has a bigger task on her hand in controlling a less experienced pitching staff following the graduation of ace Maggie Tyler from last year’s team. Tyler started 33 of the Hokies’ 49 games last year, tossing 27 complete games and 10 shutouts. She finished her four-year career with 700 strikeouts, ranking third all-time in Virginia Tech history.
Tyler’s departure leaves a major hole within the rotation, but Duff sees a potential approach that could bring success the Hokies way.
“Maggie is one of those pitchers who was dominant, but since she left we don’t really have any dominant pitchers anymore,” explained Duff. “We have six pitchers that are pretty good, they all play other positions too, they’re not solely pitchers. We’re just going to have to pitch by committee this year instead of focusing on just trying to stay behind one pitcher the whole time.
“Carrie [Eberle] throws really hard, she’s a freshman. Aysha [Richardson], she’s a redshirt junior, she hasn’t been able to play this fall, but she’s still throwing and her ball moves, it moves a lot.”
Following a 29-28 finish last year, Virginia Tech missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Ever since 2005, when Angela Tincher dominated the bump, Virginia Tech softball has been a program built for success. In order to restore that position, Duff pinpointed some adjustments that the offense needs to make this year.
“Even though we’ve done really good this fall ball, we still need to keep scoring runs,” Duff said. “We haven’t been hitting bad, but we’ve been chasing bad pitches so that’s something we need to focus on.
“Chasing bad pitches has been a big part of it. If you swing at a ball, you’re out of the cage and you have to go all the way back around. If you swing at an outside pitch but you’re only looking in, then you’re out of the cage. If you swing at an inside pitch instead of an outside pitch then you’re out of the cage. Basically pitch selection is the biggest thing we’ve been working on.”
With the spring season approaching closer and closer every day, the Hokies seem poised for an upstart year behind the direction of Duff.