Rutgers Softball concluded a disappointing 2016 season, losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament to six-seed Ohio State, 5-0. It was the tenth shutout loss for the Knights as they finished the season 24-33 (8-15 B1G). RU finished tied with Purdue for 11th place in the conference.
In softball, pitching is the name of the game. Find a workhorse for the circle, and you're halfway home to a successful season. For the Knights, though, no pitcher had a winning record and no one had an ERA under 4. But it wasn't just a lack of top flight pitching; RU did not have a strong season at the plate, and the statistics bear that out.
Rutgers had a team batting average of just .250 in conference play, the 13th best in the Big Ten. In the circle, Rutgers pitching carried a 6.83 ERA, again 13th best. Opponents hit 42 homeruns against the Knights - the most in the conference - and batted .342 against RU pitching, also 13th best - or worst - in the Big Ten.
Compare that to conference champion Michigan. The Wolverines batted .378 as a team and had a team ERA of 2.01. UM swept Rutgers in the final series of the season, outscoring Rutgers, 28-2 and hitting six homeruns; Rutgers hit 13 homeruns all season.
Last season, the Knights' pitching was better by almost two runs per game in their ERA. In 2015, Alyssa Landrith accounted for half the Knights' wins with a 15-12 record and a 3.30 ERA.
In trying to find a silver lining, in the Big Ten, Rutgers is actually one of the better climates to play in. Yet, the Big Ten had six softball teams with quality records that were selected to compete in the 2016 NCAA Division I Softball Tournament. Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State will be taking part in this year's tournament.
Michigan, winners of the Big Ten regular season, enters theas the No. 2 seed - that's No. 2 overall in the nation - and will host the Ann Arbor Regional, taking on Valparaiso on Friday. The Wolverines are making their 24th NCAA appearance overall, coming off their 11th Women's appearance last season. Eight of its players are from warm weather states, meaning they are playing almost 12-months a year.
Now when you compare Ann Arbor to Piscataway in the spring, there's a slight difference. The average high temperature in AA is 60; it's 63 in Piscataway. It's also more likely to snow there in April. So why are they so good, so consistently?
Well, it's Michigan; it has the resources and it has a coach who has been there - winning - for 32 years. Carol Hutchins has 19 Big Ten titles along with an NCAA title. In that "warm weather" softball hotbed of Michigan.
Illinois enters its fifth NCAA Tournament and first since 2010 as it enters the Lexington Regional. Winner of the 2016 Big Ten Softball Tournament, Minnesota (average April temp of 58) enters its fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament and makes its 11th appearance in program history. Making its 24th appearance in program history, Nebraska has advanced to the WCWS on eight occasions. Northwestern is making its 16th overall and third consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State advances to its first NCAA Tournament since 2010 and eighth overall.
Rutgers has played in one NCAA tournament, in 1994, where it went 0-2 before being eliminated. It played two other times in the "national tournament". The first, in 1979, saw it play in the AIAW-ASA; it went 1-2. The second time, again pre-NCAA, was in 1981 in the Women's College World Series.
In terms of recruiting, facilities certainly play a role, as does fully funding scholarships. Head Coach Jay Nelson has reached outside of New Jersey to bring in players who are competing virtually year round in warmer climes. Three of Nelson's incoming five players are from California, including one pitcher. None are from New Jersey.
Like Michigan, Rutgers this year has eight players from warm-weather states (if you count Virginia). But unlike Michigan, RU carries just 19 players to Michigan's 24. And we can debate whether more players make a difference another time....again.
For now, Rutgers Softball is putting away the equipment. And waiting for the completion of an indoor practice facility.