With temperatures in the fifties in New Jersey, it can mean only one thing: spring sports must be under way. Not that it means games being played up here, though.
Softball has been playing since the second week in February. And as is typical, schools from the north find warm weather sites for the early part of the schedule, and Rutgers is no different. Let’s do a little catching up with the squad.
The Knights are currently 5-8 off of three tournaments in California, Georgia, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Yeah, Puerto Vallarta in February. There’s a recruiting tool!
Rutgers is coming off a 14-37 (5-15 B1G) season in 2017. While not the top softball conference in the nation, the Big Ten does have several teams that challenge nationally, most notably Michigan and Minnesota, both ranked in the preseason. Minnesota is the returning Big Ten champion.
Rutgers missed the Big Ten tournament last year and it is something the team wants to correct.
Titan Classic at Cal State Fullerton
The Knights opened the season with a 2-3 record on the west coast. They topped Middle Tennessee (7-0) and Utah State (11-5) while dropping games to Cal Riverside, Fullerton, and Pittsburgh. Rutgers won its last game as senior first baseman Rebecca Hall finished a single shy of the cycle, going 3-for-4 with five RBIs as RU claimed a see-saw, 11-5 victory over Utah State. Rutgers picked up its first win of the season, 7-0, over Middle Tennessee behind a complete game shutout from junior pitcher Whitney Jones.
Puerto Vallarta College Challenge
If there was ever a misnomer, it’s a “challenge” being in Puerto Vallarta in February. Rutgers dropped its first three games south of the border, including losses to No. 3 Oregon and No. 15 Mississippi, before topping Houston in the finale, 4-3.
“This win was inspiring not only because of the way we won coming from behind in the last inning and winning it in extra innings, but also because it was a win that everyone contributed to,” said head coach Jay Nelson. “We used a lot of athletes in the game to play the roles of pinch running and hitting. The bench energy was amazing and it was a very positive influence felt by everyone playing. We are looking to carry this attitude into our next tournament and pick up where we left off.”
Bailey Memorial Tournament at Kennesaw State
That next tournament saw a split of four games in the Peach State. Rutgers won its first two contests against the host Owls, sweeping a doubleheader 4-3 (8 inn) and 7-0. Down 3-1 heading into the final inning of Game 1, the Scarlet benefitted from two unearned runs to tie the game. Rutgers capitalized on its first opportunity in the International Tiebreaker in extra innings as sophomore designated player Nicole Bowman scored junior Jess Hughes for the eventual game-winning run on a sacrifice fly. Junior starting pitcher Whitney Jones completed the game for her second win of the season.
The Knights have three more tournaments over the next three weekends, beginning with a scheduled five game tourney - the Pirate Invitational - at Hampton University in Virginia. RU does not start conference play until March 23 when they travel to Wisconsin. And while baseball has already played a game in Piscataway, the home softball schedule won’t kick off until the last weekend in March when the team hosts Penn State.
Pitchers and Catchers
In softball, a dominant pitcher can carry a team a long way. Throw in a strong second arm and the team can be a force. The graduation of Shayla Sweeney, who worked almost 60 percent of the innings last season, means Jay Nelson needs to replace a true workhorse. He’ll count on Junior Whitney Jones to lead the rotation along with sophomore Cambria Keefer. Keefer hopes to return at full strength after turning in seven starts and 25 appearances in an injury plagued first season. “The injuries are behind her,” Nelson said. “Once things start clicking for her, Cambria will be a real difference maker on our pitching staff.” Jones is currently 2-4 with a 2.84 ERA while Keefer is 2-2, 3.08.
On the other end of the battery is senior Sierra Maddox, returning for her final year as the team’s top catcher. Maddox’s role calling games is vital, as is her bat in the middle of Rutgers’ lineup. She hit .276/.331/.425 last season with four home runs to increase her career total to 18, which ranks seventh in the RU record book.
Around the Horn
“There is absolutely a motivating factor to return to the [Big Ten] tournament,” Nelson said. “It’s a long season, and it will be, in part, powered by the leadership and talent in our infield. There has been good competition for some positions, which will give us a boost. There’s no doubt we will rely on them in the middle of our lineup and as our first line of defense.”
Seniors Rebecca Hall and Meaghan Wells, along with sophomores Anyssa Iliopoulos and Nicole Bowman hold down the infield for Rutgers. Hall slugged .691 last year to rank seventh in the Big Ten and recorded a .984 fielding percentage with just three errors at first base. Wells is one of only four seniors on the squad. Originally a starter in the outfield as a sophomore, Wells shifted to third base last season and started 30 games there.
Seven through nine
In the outfield, coach Jay Nelson will be looking at youth to bolster the team. “This group provides important defense, speed on the bases and the ability to get on base and set the stage,” said head coach Jay Nelson. “There is a great opportunity for some young talent to step up and play well. They come from great high schools and club programs, so we’re excited to see what they can do.”
Freshman Alexis Silinonte is the projected starter in centerfield. She was a two-time First Team All-League performer and three-time Sonoma County League champion at Petaluma High School in California . Sophomore Hailey Hoklotubbe produced 37 hits as a rookie while starting 50 games in the Rutgers outfield, and looks to build on that success as the projected starter in left field.
Big Ten Player of the Week
Tristen Edwards, Nebraska - IF – So.
- Batted .333 with a home run, two doubles, five RBI and three runs scored last weekend, helping No. RV/22 Nebraska take three of four games at the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in Atlanta
- Drilled a three-run home run in the first of the Huskers’ two wins at Georgia Tech
- Added a two-run double in the second matchup with Georgia Tech, as well as two hits in a tournament-opening win against Boston College
Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Week
Meghan Beaubien, Michigan - LHP – Fr.
- Posted a 2-0 record with a 0.48 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 14.2 innings pitched last weekend as No. 20/19 Michigan split four games at the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in Tallahassee, Florida
- Tossed a complete-game two-hit shutout at No. 8/6 Florida State, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning while finishing with seven strikeouts and no walks
- Picked up the win in the Wolverines’ opener against Notre Dame, allowing two hits and fanning four in 5.0 innings of relief