Eleven months from the last time they took the field, the Virginia Tech softball team will return to the diamond this week hoping to pick up where they left off last season. The 2021 schedule includes 38 ACC games (16 at home) and 11 non-conference games (5 at home). The Hokies are scheduled to travel to Kennesaw State this weekend (2/13 – 2/14) for a 3-game series before opening ACC play next week with 3-game sets against both Clemson and Florida State.
The last time we saw these ladies on the field, the Hokies were on a roll, racking up a 21-4 record that included signature wins over #13 Minnesota, #17 South Carolina, and #23 Northwestern. They had started ACC play with a sweep of the University of Virginia – a series in which they held the Wahoos scoreless. When the season came to a screeching halt, they were leading the ACC in hitting (.324) and were averaging 6.92 runs per game. More than one Hokie fan has played the “what if” game regarding what could have been had the season played out.
“As the season rolled on, we just kept getting better and better,” Coach Pete D’Amour told Mark Berman of the Roanoke Times at the end of the season. “We were getting towards everybody clicking on all cylinders, and the rug was pulled.”
But a new year is now upon us. The good news is that eight of those players that batted .278 or better return this season:
Joining these veterans will be Cana Davis (#11), who missed most of the last two years because of injuries, but has started 40 games in her Hokie career, including two in the Lexington Regional in 2019, where she recorded three hits. Coach D’Amour says “she has been hitting the cover off the ball this spring.”
Also returning is the player who carried most of the Hokies’ pitching load last season – D1 Softball’s Pitcher of the Year Keely Rochard, who was simply amazing. Keely finished the abbreviated season with a 15-3 record, a 1.52 ERA, and 183 strikeouts in 120 innings. She led Division I in strikeouts and wins, and tied for the lead in shutouts with seven. She has been named to a couple of preseason All-American Teams, and the expectations for her this season are off the charts – hopefully, not unrealistically.
Coach D’Amour expects Rochard’s excellence to continue this season, telling TSL’s Evan Hughes during a podcast that “she has already moved on from last year. Sometimes when a player gets a bunch of accolades, they think they’ve arrived – not Keely”, said D’Amour. “She came into the office yesterday and said ‘last year is over, it’s a new year – my job is on the line.’ She wants to get better, and that’s all you can hope for with one of the best players on your team…when she wants to get better, everyone else sees that, and it ups everyone else’s game.”
The success of the last two seasons, along with the quality of returning talent, has raised the expectations for this year’s squad. The Hokies are picked 2nd by the coaches in the ACC (only five points behind Florida State) and have been ranked in every national preseason poll as follows:
Softball America: 13th
D1 Softball: 14th
Justin’s World of Softball: 14th
USA Today/Coaches Poll: 15th
ESPN/USA Softball: 16th
D’Amour, who never pays attention to rankings, does admit that it’s nice that “you’re being recognized as having a respectable program,” but quickly adds “now it’s over…and you have to continue to get better day by day.”
When the season ended, the Hokies had no weak spots in the batting order, and that should continue this season. Sophomores Kelsey Bennett and Jayme Bailey were both named to the ACC preseason first team, but they should have plenty of support up and down the lineup.
The only two positions that will need to be replaced are up the middle of the infield: Second baseman Olivia Lattin, who graduated (187 career starts, .270 career average), and shortstop Maddi Banks (75 career starts, .285 career average), who transferred to Ole Miss.
The favorite at shortstop is highly touted freshman Cameron Fagan (#97), who was rated as the #13 prospect in the country by Fastpitch News and yesterday was named the #9 Top True Freshman by D1 Softball. In fall ball, she displayed a cannon for an arm and showed some good wheels.
Second base is a battle between sophomore Morgan Overaitis (#24), a transfer from Michigan, where she hit .277, and freshman Addy Greene (#26). In the fall scrimmages that I watched, Greene usually batted first or second, stole five bases, and even homered. Like the entire team, she’ll be fun to watch.
The Hokies are also fortunate to have several other new faces that should also contribute this season:
* Alexa Milius (#12), a transfer from Central Connecticut, will provide depth at catcher and can also play infield. Alexa hit .374 with 18 RBI in 34 games in 2019 and was named to the all NEC rookie team. D’Amour says “she has had a really good spring.”
* Freshman Emma Ritter (#90), will compete for outfield playing time. Coach D’Amour told D1 Softball in the fall that “she’s one of the fastest girls on the team” and “has light pole power.”
*Freshman Emma Yates (#15) and junior Kayleigh Addington (#31) should provide additional depth at catcher, and freshmen Jenna Pearson (#5), Maddy Federico (#20), Maija Louko (#22), and Rebecca Ludowig (#27) will all be ready to step in as needed.
The big question this season will be pitching depth. With the ACC moving to four game series (which will include one scheduled doubleheader), pitching depth will be more critical than ever. It will almost be impossible for Rochard to pitch every inning of a series like she did in Charlottesville last year (By the way, she pitched all 21 innings and gave up no runs, four hits and struck out 29).
The Hokies have several possibilities to share the pitching load:
*Kaylee Hewitt (#33)– Appeared in 10 games last season, starting nine. Ended the year with a record of 6-1, a 2.08 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 40 innings (along with 37 walks). She no-hit North Carolina A&T and got a huge 2-1 win against #13 Minnesota in the Clearwater tournament. Unfortunately, she has reportedly been battling some injuries.
*True Freshman Mackenzie Osborne (#10) is the two–time Virginia Player of the Year who had a stellar high school career at Richlands. She throws in the mid-60s, typically working up and down in the zone. “She listens and gets better every day in practice,” says Coach D’Amour.
*True Freshman Ivy Rosenberry (#34) also had a stellar high school career at James Wood in Winchester. She has reportedly been hitting in the upper 60s since arriving at VT, and sources report that she has a pretty mean drop ball.
*Molly Jacobson – (#17) Appeared in 2 games last season, pitching three innings without giving up a run.
*Keara Napoli (#7) – Transferred from Georgia after the 2018 season, but has only pitched in four games for VT. During fall ball, it appeared she had changed her delivery, so it will be interesting to see how that transition goes.
Certainly the expectation is that the Hokies will be very, very good, but perhaps those expectations need to be tempered just a bit. Since the NCAA ruled that last season didn’t count for eligibility purposes, most teams will be as good – or better – than they were last year. For example, Florida State will have four of their five seniors returning as well as 15 freshmen. Balancing lineups and playing time will be even more important for all coaching staffs.
The lack of early season “warm-up” games (last season, the Hokies played 20 games before beginning ACC play) will also create a new challenge. Traditionally, a number of those early season games are a chance for coaching staffs to be flexible with their lineup combinations to see who is ready for the big stage. D’Amour notes that last season’s lineup from week 1 to week 4 looked very different. This year, the opening series is a challenging 3-game set against a VERY good Kennesaw State squad and the newcomers will have to step up early. Then it’s straight into ACC play with Clemson and Florida State.
“There’s more on the line earlier this year,” says D’Amour.
However, Coach D’Amour told Evan that he is ready to go to battle with this bunch. “It’s been a real team effort during the offseason” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a better defensive outfield than this one. This group just goes and gets it. Good arms, good reads. The infield has the potential to be a really good infield defense. Behind the plate, Mac and Alexa are back there…Hitting-wise, there’s no one in our lineup to sleep on – we’re just hitting the ball really well. Defensively and offensively, we’re pretty stout. And when Keely is on the mound, we have a chance against anybody…The only question mark is who wants the ball after Keely….we’re just looking forward to playing.”
So are we, coach. So are we.
Let’s Go Hokies!!!