The 2017 campaign for the Virginia Tech softball team has been a roller-coaster ride thus far filled with ups and downs. Currently sitting with a record of 13-13 (3-6 ACC), the Hokies are on a three-game winning streak and will travel to South Bend on Friday to take on Notre Dame in an important ACC matchup.
“The biggest thing is we work hard, we play hard,” said head coach Scot Thomas. “I think that’s critical. I have no problem with our effort. I think even the adjustment phase of what we have asked them to do, they’ve given a good effort. It’s something we’ve had to work on. Something we’ll continue to work on throughout the season, whether it’s at the plate or other things. Actually, defensively we’ve been very solid all year. We’ve had very few games, usually it’s just been an inning here or there, so I don’t have a problem there. Pitching wise, they’re doing a good job of keeping the ball in the park and giving us an opportunity to play the ball. We’ve probably given up a little too many walks right now.
“I think the things we have to continue working on is hitting with runners on. We have to make sure that we’re not trying to do too much. We’re staying through the balls and squaring balls up. That’s one of the biggest things right now. Limiting walks and squaring balls up with runners on and I think we’ll be in good shape.”
For the Hokies, it’s been a case of close losses. In fact, six of Tech’s 13 losses have come by one run. If a few of those plays go the Hokies’ way during the course of the games, Tech could easily be looking at a winning record.
“We felt like we had an opportunity to potentially sweep UVA and actually we had the lead going into the seventh on Saturday against UNC,” said Thomas. “Those are disappointing, but I think what we have to do is we have to take what we’re doing right now and move forward. We have no off weekends. We lost four in a row at one point all on walk-offs in the bottom of the seventh and so forth. Those things have made it a little tougher. I think we could be potentially four or five games better than what we are, but we’re not right now so we’ll have to deal with it.”
The upcoming series with Notre Dame will be a critical one for Virginia Tech as it looks to find its stride down the stretch. The Hokies are seventh in the ACC standings at the moment, while Notre Dame holds a 1-5 ACC record for tenth in the standings. The Fighting Irish are coming off a tough weekend at No. 1 Florida State where they were swept by the Seminoles and shut out in all three games. Notre Dame is better than their record indicates, though, as they have defeated No. 11 Georgia and No. 4 Oklahoma in non-conference play. Meanwhile, the Hokies hope to build on the current three game winning streak, including the doubleheader against East Tennessee State on Tuesday.
“We have to take what the scouting report tells us and try to make good on it,” Thomas said. “It looks like they’re struggling with some pitching and we know they have some better pitchers than what they’re showing. Their tough schedule is going to pay off for them in the long run. The biggest thing for us is to make sure we’re not hurting ourselves, so we’re going to continue to play solid defense. The thing about a team like a Notre Dame is if you make mistakes against them, they’ll make you pay. What we’re trying to do is limit mistakes and make sure we’re doing the routine things. Getting bunts down when we need to, we don’t bunt a lot, but when we do there’s a reason why we’re bunting. We have to do the little things right. I think if we do that we’ll be okay. Pitching is obviously going to be key. It always is.”
Sophomore outfielder Emma Strouth has been one of the spark plugs for the offense, leading the team with a .365 batting average and 20 runs batted in. As a matter of fact, three other Hokies hold a batting average over .300: Olivia Lattin (.360), Aysha Richardson (.356), and Vanessa Gonzalez (.338). Tech has been a powerful offense. The Hokies have hit 35 home runs and are third in the nation with 1.35 home runs per game. As a team, Tech is also 13th in the nation with a slugging percentage of .522.
“She’s [Strouth] really quiet with her hands,” said Thomas. “She does a great job of getting through the ball. She’s strong. She just doesn’t have a lot of extra pieces to her swing that some kids do that put them in bad spots. She’s just really quiet with those hands and I think that’s what makes her consistent. As long as she is swinging at good pitches, she’s really doing well. I think as a whole, we’re like third in the country in home runs per game. I think we’re doing some positive things overall, and certainly Emma is leading us.”
While the offensive numbers have stood out, the pitching has gone through some unforeseen circumstances, particularly the season ending injury to junior Mikaela Aiken. Aiken was expected to be an integral part to the rotation, compiling a 9-9 record over her career with nine complete games in 25 starts.
“The story that most people don’t know is Mikaela Aiken is someone we counted on to carry the bulk of our innings, and she had labrum surgery so she’s out for the year,” said Thomas. “On top of that, another one who we thought was going to carry a bulk of innings is Chelsea Whitcomb who has a cast on her hand. We’re counting on some kids to do some things more than what we anticipated to do, especially the pitchers. I think they’re doing a pretty good job. They’re working hard at it, so that’s exciting.”
Two of these pitchers who have been thrusted into key roles in the rotation are freshmen Taylor Barnes and Carrie Eberle. Barnes leads the team with a 3.05 earned run average in her seven starts. Meanwhile, Eberle has pitched the majority of the innings (69.2 IP) in 17 appearances for a record of 6-3.
“It’s been a combined effort,” Thomas said. “I thought Taylor [Barnes] threw very well down against South Carolina. Again we carried a lead into the seventh down there, and I thought we should have won that one. They made good on some mistakes and we just didn’t finish. They’re having to do more than we anticipated them to do. They’ve accepted the challenge. I think the positive piece of it is the experience they’re gaining and the adjustments they’re making hopefully will continue to pay off each week. They have to get it done and I think they know that. It’s not as big a shock to the system as it was a couple weeks ago.
“I have a lot of confidence in them. Like I said, the one thing we have to make sure they’re doing is cutting down on the walks, and I think we’re already doing that. We’re already seeing us get better at that piece. We may be a little bit unconventional because we’ll pitch by committee a lot, but we can get it done that way. It’s not like we have to have that No. 1 kid out there just mowing people down. Quite honestly, there’s very few teams that do. We’re just a little bit young there, and as long as they continue to trust what they’re doing. Trust in themselves and their pitches and practice and training. They should be good. I feel good about it.”
Built upon a high-powered offense and a pitching staff that will continue to develop and mature, Virginia Tech has the pieces in place to finish the second half of the season on a high note.