Pitt softball hopes for health, improvement in 2020

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Pitt softball hopes for health, improvement in 2020

Junior Brittany Knight pitches. Pitt softball looks to improve after finishing last in the ACC Coastal in 2019.

Junior Brittany Knight pitches. Pitt softball looks to improve after finishing last in the ACC Coastal in 2019.

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Junior Brittany Knight pitches. Pitt softball looks to improve after finishing last in the ACC Coastal in 2019.

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Junior Brittany Knight pitches. Pitt softball looks to improve after finishing last in the ACC Coastal in 2019.

By Henry Jackson, Staff Writer

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After an injury-riddled and underachieving 2019 season, Pitt softball is looking to return to its winning ways in 2020. Led by second-year head coach Jodi Hermanek and buoyed by a roster full of fresh faces, the Panthers must only pray those players stay healthy.

“We’re looking to win. We want that ACC championship, we want to make it to NCAAs, and definitely do better than last year,” senior first baseman Kaitlyn Kruger said. “But we’re not trying to compare ourselves to last year. Last year was last year, and we’re looking forward to creating a new name for ourselves.”

It’s been an up-and-down — literally, in that order — past two seasons for Pitt. The Panthers won the Coastal Division in 2018 and came within one out of an ACC Championship title, only to watch Florida State snatch the title away on a walk-off home run. A turbulent offseason saw former head coach Holly Aprile leave the team to coach at Louisville, leaving behind a roster stacked with veteran talent and laden with high expectations for the next season.

Instead, a series of disasters condemned the team to a 13-41 overall (7-17 ACC) record, worst in the conference.

“Last year we endured a ton of injuries to a lot of starters,” Hermanek said. “We had key people who were out for long stints of time, you know, 18 games, two and a half months, whatever it might be. That put a lot of pressure on the depth of our roster, and young kids who were trying to learn how to compete at this high level in the ACC.”

The team was crippled last season by long absences from senior pitcher Sarah Dawson, along with senior infielders Olivia Gray and Marissa DeMatteo. As in any other sport, softball teams are simply better when healthy.

This season should prove to be different. Pitt showed progress in the second half of last season, winning six of its last nine games. Hermanek’s 15 years of solid coaching are enough to prove last season an anomaly, and her experience certainly brings a boost to the team.

Like most Panther sports teams, Pitt softball is centered around a strong defense. Although sophomore third baseman Morgan Batesole is the only returning starter in the infield, Hermanek has pieced together a talented combination of transfers and first-years to occupy the diamond. The Panthers also benefit from an experienced outfield and consistency behind the plate with returning senior catcher Walker Barbee.

In a pitching staff led by redshirt junior Brittany Knight, Pitt will see action from a variety of underclassmen. What they lack in experience and numbers should be made up for by their diversity of style, Knight believes.

“We don’t have a very large pitching staff,” Knight said. “But I would say with our pitching staff, one of our biggest strengths is that we’re all different. Each one of us are very different pitchers, so when one of us gets out of a game and someone comes in to close, they’re seeing a very different look, which I think is very beneficial.”

As far as offense goes, the Panthers aren’t likely to improve much upon last season. They struggled to score in 2019, and while this year’s team certainly has power, consistency remains a question.

“It’s gonna be about our offense compiling hits together,” Hermanek said. “And I definitely think we have some athletes that can put some pressure on at the plate, and can swing with some power as well.”

Pitt’s greatest obstacle is its own youth. Softball is a mental game, and with many of the team’s starters being relatively new, avoiding mental errors will be crucial. The Panthers must learn confidence — which can only come through positive results — in order to be competitive in the ACC.

“I think because we’re a young team it can overwhelm us a bit sometimes, so just keeping the game simple is our main goal,” Kruger said. “Sometimes we get too caught up into thinking about the game, and we should let our talent take over, and let the preparation we put in be what we’re leaning on instead of mentally thinking about everything.”

With five games already in the books, Pitt’s results have been mixed. During their opening performance in the Stacy Winsberg Memorial Tournament last weekend, the Panthers impressed in wins over CSU Bakersfield and San Diego, but their inexperience showed in a 9-8 extra-inning loss to Cal Poly. Pitt also lost two games to fourth-ranked powerhouse UCLA, which is the caliber of opponent Pitt will face often in the loaded ACC.

Junior second baseman LoLo Sanchez, a transfer from Mercer, made a splash in California. She led the team on offense by batting .591, earning Office Depot Student-Athlete of the Week for her performance.

Overall, it’s not entirely clear how Pitt will fare in the 2020 season. While the Panthers are certainly young, they are healthy and well-led. They won’t be haunted by the misfortunes of last season, and as the Coastal Division has proven many times over, anything can happen.

“I think that this team is all in,” Kruger said. “They’re going for the gold so we’re looking to not only win the game, but beat out our opponent, and prove we’re the better team. We don’t want to just play easy, or just win because we happen to, but we’re really looking to push hard. We have that kind of attitude that we’re going to beat you, so we walk on the field with that swag.”

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