No. 23 Hokies Softball Heads To Auburn To Open Season

Pete D’Amour and the No. 23 Hokies are at Auburn to open their 2024 campaign. (Jon Fleming)

The No. 23 Hokies open their season on Friday in Auburn at the Tiger Invitational. Virginia Tech joins Illinois, Belmont and the host Tigers in the three-day affair.

It’ll play No. 19 Auburn and Illinois twice with a single game vs. Belmont. Only the Saturday game against the Tigers will be televised (SEC Network Plus).

Here’s the Hokies’ schedule. All times are Eastern.

“We’re as ready as we can be after practicing for about a month,” Virginia Tech head coach Pete D’Amour told Tech Sideline. “Thankfully, we’ve been able to get outside and get meaningful reps the last week-and-a-half. We’re ready to get on the field and see where we stand to start the year.”

Auburn

The Tigers went 43-19 last season and received an NCAA Tournament bid, where they were assigned to the Clemson regional. Auburn finished 3-2 and advanced to the if-necessary game on Sunday where it lost to Clemson 5-1.

The Tigers are led by senior All-American Maddie Penta, one of the best hurlers in the country. Penta was the 2023 SEC Pitcher of the Year after going 27-7 with a 1.33 ERA and 303 strikeouts in 220.2 innings pitched. She held opposing batters to a .160 average.

Senior Shelby Lowe is the No. 2 pitcher for the Tigers. The lefty had an outstanding freshman year (13 wins, 179 Ks in 166 innings) before an injury limited her workload during her sophomore and junior seasons.

The Tigers also return their leading hitter from last season: Nelia Peralta (.329 average, 9 HRs), who was a preseason All-SEC selection. She led the team in average, hits (54), runs (39), walks (43) and on-base percentage (.479) in 2023.

Senior Makayla Packer provides another solid bat in the lineup. Packer, who has started 134 games in her career, has a career average of .313 and has stolen 51 bases.

Auburn was hit hard by players leaving the program after last season. Four of its top eight hitters entered the transfer portal and a fifth decided to give up softball, citing frustration with the program. Combined, those five players accounted for 185 hits, including 26 doubles, 33 home runs and 146 RBI.

However, the Tigers did land two transfers: Anna Wohlers from DePaul and Amelia Lech from Maryland. Wohlers, a junior catcher/infielder, hit .364 with 12 home runs and was a First Team All-Big East selection last season. Lech, a catcher/utility player, posted a .285 average with 16 homers and 47 RBI.

Auburn is coached by Virginia native Mickey Dean, who is in his seventh year on the Plains and 17th overall. Dean, who also coached at Radford and James Madison, has a career record of 684-281 with 12 NCAA appearances.

If history is any indication, the games between Virginia Tech and Auburn may turn out to be pitchers’ duals. The teams have met three times previously. The Tigers won 1-0 in 2012 and 2-0 in 2011 while the Hokies were victorious in 2007, winning 1-0 behind a one-hit, 15 strikeout performance by Angela Tincher.

Kelly Ryono and the Fighting Illini will test the Hokies on Friday and Sunday. (Illinois athletics)

Illinois

Illinois went 29-27 last season with a 6-16 Big Ten record. It was picked eighth in this year’s preseason poll for the conference.

The Fighting Illini also experienced significant losses from last year’s team with 11 players departing (seven graduates, four transfers). That group accounted for 42 percent of their hits and 37 percent of their runs batted in.

However, Illinois’ best hitter — graduate senior Kelly Ryono — returns. She led the Illini in batting average (.352), hits (62), home runs (12), RBI (48) and slugging percentage (.619) in 2023 and should get some much-needed offensive help from Princeton transfer Serena Sparks. A two-time All-Ivy League honoree, she led the league in hitting last season with a .397 average.

In the circle, Illinois is led by senior left-hander Tori McQueen (4-4, 51 Ks in 69.2 innings) and Mississippi State transfer Briana Bower.

The Illini are coached by Tara Perry, who is in her ninth season in Champaign (23rd overall). She’s taken the program to four NCAA Tournaments in her tenure. She has also coached at Ball State, Western Kentucky and Birmingham-Southern and has a career record of 652-554-1.

Illinois leads the all-series with Virginia Tech 3-2. However, when the team last met in the Lexington regional in 2019, the Hokies registered a pair of wins over the Illini, 6-2 and 5-1.

Belmont

The Bruins went 29-24 with a 12-14 record in Missouri Valley Conference.

Belmont returns six of its seven primary starters from last season, including leading hitter Emily Cockrill (.331 average). However, she is the only returning starter that batted .270 or above. Belmont likes to run and stole 82 bases last season.

The strength of the Bruins is their pitching staff, which returns all three primary starters. Senior Emma Summers started 23 games last season, compiling a record of 13-15, an ERA of 2.44 and 145 strikeouts in 163 innings. Sophomore Maya Johnson (11-6, 2.26 ERA) started 17 games while striking out 207 batters in 133 innings while fellow sophomore Ellie Giles (4-3, 4.47 ERA) started 12.

Laura Matthews, who is in her fourth season as the head coach, has a record of 77-67, highlighted by a 33-17 record in 2022. Before being hired at Belmont in July 2020, Matthews spent three years at Wright State and five years as the head coach at Wittenberg University, where she had a 128-57-1 record. This is the first-ever meeting between the Hokies and Belmont.

Here is the tale of the tape for the weekend:

4 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Here’s to getting off to a 5-0 start en route to another opportunity to host a regional. Let’s go lady hokies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *