Chandler Howard dug into the box Thursday afternoon in the first game of a doubleheader at Villanova with her team stuck.
For 10 innings, the Rutgers softball team couldn't seem to buy a run even if it were served on a silver platter -- and it actually kind of was that easy just one inning prior.
Rutgers loaded the bases in the top of the 10th inning against Villanova with zero outs. Nada. Zilch. Not a single one.
Villanova pitcher Kate Poppe looked defeated. She was one pitch away practically handing the Scarlet Knights the ballgame at any second.
But just as it had been throughout the entire game leading up to the bases loaded opportunity, Rutgers couldn't capitalize, thus spoiling a golden chance as fast as it had earned the blessing.
But after Villanova went down quickly in the bottom frame, the Knights had another inning to attempt to scrap at least a run across to create some sort of separation.
Bring Howard to the plate.
The junior outfielder stepped in and delivered her fourth hit of the day -- a leadoff, solo jack belted beyond the left center wall at Villanova Complex to give Rutgers an eventual 1-0 win in 11 innings.
And she didn't stop there. In the second frame of the two-game series, Howard chipped in another hit to put her at 5-for-8 on the day.
Results like these have become the norm for Howard as of late. Heading into a three-game weekend series starting today at Central Florida, Howard has been in another atmosphere in comparison to her peers. If the season ended today, Howard would claim the conference batting title with an absurd .419 batting average.
And if she were to have had the benefit of playing more games like her counterparts from the south (yes, that means you, UCF and USF), she would be ahead of the pack in total hits with her 36 on the year. Kahley Novak of UCF, for example, is second in the AAC with 42 hits. Novak has had the luxury of playing in 36 games this season with 112 at bats. That's 10 more games than Howard has played in, and 26 more plate appearances than Howard's 86.
The two will get to showcase their skills all throughout this weekend when their two teams faceoff, but if I had to put my money on it, I would say that Howard outperforms Novak.
Normally in softball, lefty batters are thought to be these short, swift slap-hitters who hit measly ground balls and weak bloopers that get them on base, but Howard doesn't fit that stereotype.
As someone who has seen her approach at the plate in person (I stopped by to checkout a home doubleheader last week against Hofstra while covering the game for the Daily Targum), she is a different breed. When the count is against her and she finds herself behind 0-1 or 0-2, she may be at her best.
Her focus zones in and she gets into this zone. She can battle back, fouling off pitches and working the pitcher to throw balls out of the strike zone in order to get the pitch she wants. She can go down and get those balls low and away and not just rollover on them with lazy bloop singles into left field, but drive them with force for doubles down the line.
And her power? Forget about it. Howard leads the team in home runs (5) and slugging percentage (.674). She not only poses a threat to other pitchers when it comes to how they will pitch around her, but she makes a Rutgers lineup batting .299 that much more dangerous.
It becomes a matter of pick-your-poison to the pitcher. You start off with senior outfielder Loren Williams in the leadoff spot (.319, 4 HR, 14 RBI), followed by Howard (.419, 5 HR, 18 RBI), and then you get junior outfielder Jackie Bates, who is having just as great as a stretch as anyone else in the AAC (.402, 3 HR, 25 RBI).
Riding a 13-game hitting streak into today's games, it doesn't look like Howard will be cooling down anytime soon (knock on wood). But she does face a UCF team (25-11, 3-0) that boasts a team ERA of 1.59 and is led by a powerful one-two punch in Shelby Turnier (14-3, 1.18 ERA, 155 SO) and Mackenzie Audas (10-8, 1.85 ERA, 124 SO).
Regardless of what happens next, whether the hitting streak will survive this weekend in Orlando or not, Howard's success this season has been pretty damn remarkable. Rutgers is roughly at the halfway point in what is a long season in a sport filled with hot and cold stretches.
But at this very second, all that matters is what's happened to this point and where it's going from here. And what's currently unfolding is head coach Jay Nelson's team flying high with a four-game winning streak and a record at six games over .500 for the first time all season.
Softball is a huge team sport, but just remember a key reason why the Knights have had its success to this point.
They have the best hitter in the AAC.