Preview: Softball slides into spring season


Kaycee Orwig | Staff Photographer

Senior infielder Olivia Gray (10) was named First Team All-ACC in 2018.

By Stephen Thompson, Staff Writer

Pitt softball ended its 2018 season in one of the most heartbreaking ways imaginable.

With two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning and a two-run lead over Florida State in the ACC Championship game, sophomore catcher Anna Shelnutt hit a three-run walk-off home run to give the Seminoles their fifth conference title in as many years.

The sting of their postseason let-down was compounded by being left out of the NCAA tournament and losing the 2018 ACC Coach of the Year Holly Aprile, who left to fill the head coaching vacancy at Louisville.

Aprile achieved new heights for a program that struggled to gain a foothold in the ACC since joining in 2013. She led the Panthers to three 30-win seasons in the last four years, a stretch which included the program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament in 2015 and an ACC Coastal division championship in 2018.

Following her departure, the search for a new head coach lasted less than a full month as Pitt athletic director Heather Lyke announced Aug. 7 that former Ohio University head coach Jodi Hermanek would fill the position. In her inaugural Pitt season, Hermanek will try to build on the positive momentum created in the second half of Aprile’s tenure.

“One way we’re going to get past it is to stop talking about it,” Hermanek said. “Because there’s nothing we can do about it … they understand what it takes to excel to that part of a season and win against opponents of that caliber. So we’re going to keep those experiences in our back pockets and ride with those.”

Hermanek comes from Ohio University, a program that, like Pitt, struggled to make a name for itself on the national stage. But when Hermanek took over in 2008, things began to take a turn. The Bobcats won three division titles, two conference tournament titles and made two NCAA tournament appearances under her leadership.  

Hermanek will take over a Panther program that already has a strong foundation, featuring just a core of players that are talented, experienced and, above all else, hungry. Last season’s disappointing ending left everyone eager to prove this team has what it takes to win an ACC title and more.

Senior infielder Olivia Gray was named First Team All-ACC in 2018, and as she enters her final season at Pitt, she echoed Coach Hermanek’s message of leaving the past in the past.

“It’s important just to keep looking forward and keep our eyes on the prize,” Gray said. “We want to win the ACC and make it to the postseason.”

Gray said she believes everyone in the conference expects to see Pitt win the Coastal division including the Panthers themselves.   

The Panthers graduated five seniors from last year, including their best players on both offense and defense. Star catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko led Pitt in home runs, RBIs and batting average, while workhorse pitcher Kayla Harris led the team in earned run average and wins.

Despite the significant losses, Gray and senior pitcher Sarah Dawson have no concerns about how they will replace their productive predecessors. Dawson spoke highly of the maturity and talent of her fellow pitchers, including senior Taylor Rahach, redshirt sophomore Brittney Knight and first-year Abby Edwards.

“Strong pitching is still going to be what we hang our hat on,” she said. “Our rotation is going to be a huge asset that we’ve never had before. We have the ability to use all four pitchers in every single game.”

Although the Panthers finished 2018 sixth in the conference in batting average, seventh in on-base percentage and fourth in strikeouts, the power coming from the middle of the lineup propelled the Panthers to 258 runs, good for third in the conference. The Panthers finished in the top three of the ACC in both home runs and slugging percentage, but after losing multiple major contributors to graduation, some new faces will have to step into larger roles.

For Gray, that doesn’t require a major change to her skills or her approach. In a sport that plays a lot of games and requires longevity as much as talent, she wants to add stability to the list of adjectives that define her as a player.

“My goal this year is to stay consistent,” Gray said. “Whether that’s at the plate, in the field or in a leadership role on the team.”

But as much as the Panthers hope to win this season, with a brand new head coach taking over, everyone looks toward what the future will hold. Hermanek is in a unique situation, inheriting a program where she is both set up for immediate success while also hoping to build a new team and culture. Her players have already embraced the change.  

“From the moment that Coach Herm stepped on campus and met with us, the one word that has come up the most is ‘culture’ and ‘team culture’ and ‘championship mindset,’” Gray said. “And I think the repetition of those words and showing us that this is how champions play, and this is how champions act and this is how champions practice … they made us feel like we will be champions because this is how hard we’re going to work.”  

The Panthers are in position to notch another quality season, but fans should also look ahead to how Hermanek lays the foundation for her new program. Building positive culture will take time, but it is always time well spent, according to Hermanek.  

“To me, in the first few years, culture is going to seem like a society of rules, and then after that the culture just becomes a way of living.” Hermanek said. “‘Don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’ becomes just how you live … Pretty soon, with people who are willing and able, culture will just become a way of living.”