PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Feb. 11, 2014) - After achieving the first 30-win season in head coach Jay Nelson’s tenure and just the fourth in the program’s 38-year history, Rutgers softball enters the season even hungrier in 2014. With six starters returning to Piscataway along with 11 letterwinners, the Scarlet Knights are poised to continue their ascension under Nelson.
Fourteen of RU’s 20 roster spots are occupied by underclassmen, as the squad enters its first and only year in the American Athletic Conference before moving to the Big Ten in 2015. Between a youthful core containing eight freshmen and six sophomores, and an experienced upperclassmen group, the future of Rutgers softball is undoubtedly bright.
“Overall we are much more athletic than in the past,” Nelson said. “It has been one of our team goals to train athletes, not just softball players. Thanks to the aid of our strength trainer, Dana Ferraro, our team has really embraced conditioning. It has helped our athletes with not only strength, but also with speed and agility.”
Nelson returns for his eighth season at the helm of the program, with assistant coach Misty Beaver also entering her eighth year. Volunteer assistant Mark Lawrence will return in 2014, while former RU player Lindsey Curran rounds out the staff as an assistant coach this season.
One of the strengths of the 2014 Scarlet Knights will likely lie within the circle. Two of RU’s top pitchers return this season, as they are joined by a pair of newcomers who add depth to the staff.
Leading the Rutgers rotation is junior left-hander Alyssa Landrith. Landrith is 35-26 with a 2.32 ERA over the last two seasons, leading RU with a 17-15 record a year ago. Her 192 strikeouts in 2013 were a school record, while she tied for third on the singe-season list in innings pitched (201.0) and wins (17). Her three saves also tied for a single-season high.
“Alyssa carried the load last year with 201 innings pitched. With only three pitchers, she was pressed into pitching a little more than I wanted her to pitch,” Nelson said. “Alyssa is capable of beating anyone and brought home the BIG EAST Rookie of the Year award two years ago. From watching her this fall I know she is focused on leading this team to a great finish.”
The other key returner in the circle is sophomore righty Dresden Maddox, who went 9-6 in her rookie campaign with a 3.36 ERA. Used more in a starting role as the season progressed – seven of her 16 games started were in conference play – Maddox developed into the No. 2 pitcher behind Landrith in the rotation as a freshman.
“Dresden carried some of the pitching load last year. She experienced success in her freshman year and knows what she had to do to improve,” Nelson said. “I think the number one thing she needs to work on is cutting down her base on balls and being consistent in the strike zone.”
Joining the pitching staff are freshmen right-handers Aubrie Levine and Shayla Sweeney. Levine, a California native, will join the Scarlet Knights after playing three years of varsity softball at Yorba Linda HS. Sweeney will remain in her home state to bolster the RU staff after playing varsity for four years at Haddon Heights HS.
“Right now I’m looking at Aubrie in a relief role and Shayla as a starter,” Nelson said. “How they fare in these roles will determine their roles in the future. We play a 56-game schedule and the first 25 games or so are all before we open in conference. This will give both Shayla and Aubrie a chance to compete for a larger role when conference play begins.”
With starters returning at two of the four infield spots, including two letterwinners with prime experience, the infield unit has bright future.
Sophomore Jordan Whitley and senior Alexis Durando resume their careers “On the Banks” after starting last season at third and first base, respectively. Durando, who has started 82 of 91 games since her sophomore year, finished third on the team last season with a .304 batting average. She tied for the team lead with six home runs and also led the squad in slugging percentage (.497).
“Alexis returns as our starting first baseman and she is a power threat,” Nelson said. “She is also a senior team leader and someone that keeps the team loose when the need arises.”
Whitley started 45 of her 53 games played at the hot corner, compiling a .947 fielding percentage to go with a .239 batting average.
“Jordan was our starter at third base last year and did a great job,” Nelson said. “She bats from the left side and is a contact hitter. We expect her to hit for more power this year.”
Players also returning with experience include middle infielders Melanie Slowinski and Stefanie Huang. Both sophomores, Slowinski started 40 games at shortstop in her rookie campaign after taking over for injured senior, Ashley Bragg. Huang was used primarily on the bases, but recorded 19 starts as a second baseman and designated player. She hit .245 and stole three bases.
Joining the youthful unit in 2014 are first baseman Bridget Carr, third baseman and utility player Danielle DeMarco, middle infielder Ashlynn Martinez and infielder and utility player Carly Todd. RU will also be joined by sophomore middle infielder Meagan Esteban, who transferred to Piscataway from UC Riverside.
Undoubtedly the team’s most experienced group, the outfield also boasts some of RU’s most explosive hitters.
Senior right fielder Loren Williams and junior left fielder Chandler Howard finished 2013 as the top two Scarlet Knights at the plate. Williams hit .315, setting a new school record with 197 at-bats as Rutgers’ leadoff hitter. She also compiled six homers, 11 doubles and 25 RBIs.
Howard was not far off Williams’ pace, hitting .305 with 11 doubles and notching 33 RBIs. In between the two of them is junior center fielder Jackie Bates, who led RU with 35 RBIs and 13 doubles last season.
“We have our entire starting outfield back and that is huge especially when two of them hit number one and number two in the line-up,” Nelson said. “With our top three hitters returning we have the core of a pretty good offense. We will be looking for our newcomers to step up and produce.”
Filling the shoes of a four-year starter behind the plate is a tall task, but Nelson remains confident his Scarlet Knights are ready for the challenge in 2014. With the graduation of Kaci Madden last season, the competition for the starting job will largely focus on two players – senior Emma Woo and sophomore Liz Adams.
In Nelson’s eyes, both have showed strong signs of encouragement in the offseason and through the fall.
“Last year, Emma had limited playing time as a transfer catcher behind Kaci. I am very encouraged by her play this fall and she will be a contender to be a starting catcher,” Nelson said. “Liz is our sophomore returning catcher and she had a little more playing time last year than Emma. Liz batted .286 as a freshman and does a great job of getting on base with an on-base average of nearly .400.
“Liz has had the most experience catching our staff in games. Right now she is the front-runner, but there is going to be a lot of competition for the starting role.”
Among newcomers looking to compete are Dana Hendry and Gabrielle Romanowski. Hendry, a Yorba Linda, Calif., native, has experience in the outfield, while Romanowski can also play third base.
“This fall both Dana and Gabby did well however we didn’t have the chance to look at Gabby for an extended period due to injury,” Nelson said. “She is healthy now and ready to go.”
The Rutgers softball team will play a 56-game slate that features 16 home games at the RU Softball Complex and six opponents that qualified for the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
The Scarlet Knights begin their season on Friday, Feb. 14 at the University of Texas at San Antonio Tournament, before competing in two more tournaments leading up to their March 12 home-opener vs. Hampton.
American Athletic Conference play kicks off on Saturday, March 22, when the Scarlet Knights face 2013 NCAA qualifier in Louisville. From there, RU welcomes NCAA qualifying Hofstra to the RU Softball Complex for a nonconference doubleheader (March 26) and rolls into its first home conference series against USF from March 29-30. The Scarlet Knights took one-of-three games against USF last season to snap a 17-game losing streak against the Bulls.
RU will settle in Piscataway for its next eight contests from April 18-27, beginning with a three-game conference series with Memphis. Former BIG EAST rival St. John’s visits the RU Softball Complex for the first time since 2012 on Wednesday, April 23. From there, RU looks to continue its success against conference opponent UConn from April 26-27 after taking two-of-three games last season.
A contest with LIU on Wednesday, April 30 marks the final home game of 2014 for the Scarlet Knights, who will play their final four games of the season on the road. The team treks to play Iona on Saturday, May 1 before traveling to NCAA-qualifying and AAC opponent Houston to close its regular season from May 3-4.
The American Athletic Conference Championships will be hosted by Houston University in Houston, Texas from May 8-10.
“We want to improve on last year,” Nelson said. “Any win total 30 or over is a good goal and puts ourselves in a position to win the conference and advance in postseason play,” Nelson said. “Advancing into the postseason is a team goal that every coach and athlete has in mind.”
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