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Pitt softball starts with streak over the weekend

Junior+Kayla+Harris+picked+up+two+wins+this+weekend+over+the+No.+Kentucky+Wildcats.+John+Hamilton+%7C+Visual+Editor
Junior Kayla Harris picked up two wins this weekend over the No. Kentucky Wildcats. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

Junior Kayla Harris picked up two wins this weekend over the No. Kentucky Wildcats. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

Junior Kayla Harris picked up two wins this weekend over the No. Kentucky Wildcats. John Hamilton | Visual Editor

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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Coming off a respectable 31-21 season and only two years after an NCAA Tournament run, the Pitt softball team had reasons to believe 2017 could be a big year.

With a lineup featuring the return of top slugger Giorgiana Zeremenko and a rotation led by ace Kayla Harris — along with some first-year players making an immediate impact — the Panthers have potential to compete in a loaded ACC.

Still, it’s hard to believe many people outside Pitt’s clubhouse anticipated a flawless opening weekend like the one the Panthers just put together.

Pitt (5-0) got its season off to a scorching start at the University of Central Florida Invitational, picking up a 3-1 win over the No. 20 Kentucky Wildcats Friday afternoon in Orlando — the team’s first win over a ranked opponent since the 2015 ACC Tournament — followed by a 6-0 win over UCF Friday night.

The Panthers added another win over the Wildcats by a 6-3 score Saturday morning, then defeated the Florida A&M Rattlers 5-2 that afternoon. The team capped off the perfect weekend with another win over UCF Sunday afternoon, 6-3.

Fresh off a 16-win season in 2016, Harris took the mound for Pitt in the season opener against Kentucky.

The junior pitcher held the Wildcats scoreless over the first four innings, but Kentucky pitcher Meagan Prince did the same. The Panthers then loaded the bases with nobody out in the top of the fifth, and sophomore third baseman Olivia Gray brought home the first run of the game on a fielder’s choice.

That brought senior first baseman Kaitlin Manuel, who already had two hits in the game, to the plate. Manuel knocked her third single of the afternoon to left field to give Pitt a 3-0 lead, and that was all the help Harris would need.

“We got real quality at-bats from Kait today,” Pitt head coach Holly Aprile said Friday in a press release. “She came up big. In general, we just had good poise at the plate.”

Wildcats catcher Jenny Schaper belted a solo home run in the bottom of the fifth to make it a 3-1 game, but Harris silenced Kentucky’s bats the rest of the way. She allowed one run on five hits in the complete game victory.

First-year pitcher Brittany Knight made the first start of her college career later in the day, and if she had any nerves competing on the big stage for the first time, she didn’t show it.

Knight mowed down the UCF Knights’ lineup on her way to a complete game shutout. She allowed three hits, walked two and struck out four in the dominant debut.

“I thought Brittany was great,” Aprile said in the release. “She was behind in a few counts but battled back in all of those. She moved the ball well and showed a lot of poise. I am really proud of her.”

Again Pitt went four innings without scoring, then got on the board in the fifth on an RBI double by first-year right fielder Connor McGaffic. The Panthers then added three more in the sixth, highlighted by three straight doubles from Zeremenko, shortstop McKayla Taylor and Gray.

Taylor added another RBI double in the seventh to cap off Pitt’s 6-0 victory.

“We played two great games and really played well in every phase of the game,” Aprile said. “We did a great job, particularly on the mound, where we set a good tone. It was great to be out, to be playing and to play well.”

Harris took the mound Saturday morning for another showdown with the Wildcats, holding them to three runs on three hits over five innings to pick up her second win in as many days. Knight came in for two innings of scoreless relief to pick up the first save of her career in the Panthers’ 6-3 win.

Knight went right back out to start Pitt’s next game against Florida A&M Saturday afternoon, giving up two runs on four hits in a 5-2 win for the Panthers. Sophomore pitcher Sarah Dawson pitched 1 2/3 perfect innings of relief to earn her first save of the season.

“We got off to a good start and were playing loose,” Aprile said Saturday in a press release. “We were feeling confident in ourselves and just wanted to go out and play our game. We tried not to do too much and stayed within ourselves.”

Pitt got off to a faster start on Sunday, scoring two runs in the top of the first, but the Knights tied it up with a pair in the bottom of the third. Both teams then went scoreless for the next four innings, sending the game to extra innings.

The Panthers didn’t wait long to break the game open, erupting for four runs in the top of the eighth inning.

First, Manuel drew a bases-loaded walk to give Pitt a 3-2 lead, then Gray followed with a bases-clearing double to make it 6-2. Knight allowed an unearned run in the bottom half, but limited the damage to just one run to finish off the 6-3 win — giving her three wins in only three days as a college pitcher.

The Panthers will look to keep their undefeated record intact next weekend at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Tallahassee, Florida. Pitt will face off with the Nebraska Cornhuskers at 4 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, for the first of four games in Tallahassee.

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Pitt softball starts with streak over the weekend