The Penn State softball team has embarked on a 28-day road trip to start the season before its first home game on March 29. The Lions dropped their first three games of the season in Las Cruces, New Mexico last weekend, but bounced back with two straight wins to close the Troy Cox Classic.
Penn State will rely heavily on both veterans and freshmen this season. (Photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics)
The Nittany Lions struggled through their first losing season in three years with an 18-32 record in 2012. Penn State played 36 of its 50 games away from home, finishing with an 8-28 mark away and 10-4 at home.
Senior first baseman Kailyn Johnson wishes her team could play more games at home but long road trips to open the season is the only thing she’s known.
“The fans, the atmosphere, the field, just everything,” Johnson said about playing at home. “It’s like a totally different game when we’re at home.”
Johnson hit .227 last year with two home runs and nine runs batted in and is expected to be an offensive leader in the upcoming season, along with returning leader Cassidy Bell. Bell set the program record with a .423 batting average while adding nine home runs and 20 RBIs and was the only member of the team to hit above .300.
Bell is on this year’s USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Watch List.
Head coach Robin Petrini, now in her 18th year, thinks her offense will be much better than last year’s .236 team batting average.
“Our strength is going to be our offense,” Petrini said. “We’re really deep offensively.”
With the return of all eight starters in the field and an eight-woman freshman class with a lot of buzz, Petrini knows this could be an upswing year for the program.
“The difference this year is that the freshman that we brought in have added so much to our roster,” she said. “These are kids that are ready to compete and be on the field right now.”
The additions to the roster create a lot more depth than Penn State has had in a long time, Petrini said, and the team will platoon players at certain positions like catcher.
The team also has more speed than in recent years and more hitters that are capable of hitting home runs to create a good balance.
“The line-up is going to be different on a regular basis,” Petrini said. “We have more speed than we’ve had in a long time. We’ve never been a 15 to 20 home run per player team, but I think we have more kids this year that are capable of hitting it out than we ever have. Our offense is going to be fun to watch.
Among those potential home run hitters, Petrini highlighted Bell, Johnson, Kasie Hatfield and Lauren Yao.
The senior class won 29 and 31 games its first two years, respectively. Last year was a blip on the seniors' careers.
“As seniors, we just talked about how to move forward from last season and how to get a winning season,” Johnson said. “Having a freshman class wanting to be here, wanting to win really helps us and keeps us motivated.”
Freshmen pitcher/infielder Christy Von Pusch, infielder Reina Furuya, pitcher/outfielder Macy Jones, outfielder Taylor Abeyta, catcher Karlie Habitz and utility player Lexi Knief are all expected to have an impact this season.
Von Pusch could see a lot of time on the mound as the Nittany Lions have to replace the arm of Lisa Akamine but return Marissa Diescher, last year’s No. 2 starter who had a 5.52 earned run average. The Nittany Lions also return Jordan Wheatley, who had 19 appearances in the circle last season with a 4.73 ERA.
Petrini says she will go with pitching-by-committee this season as her staff works to get the pitchers to be more consistent.
“I’ve seen spots of brilliance in practice (with our pitching) so we need to get that to show up on a regular basis,” Petrini said. “Our pitching could become one of our strengths.”
Improving on last season seems to be motivation enough but the return of the Big Ten Tournament, which had not been played since 2008, provides big incentive for the team as well.
“The Big Ten Tournament really motivates your team and in years when you had to qualify to get into the tournament. Our kids always knew where they stood and what they needed to do get into the Big Ten Tournament,” Petrini said. “It keeps you motivated coming down the stretch of the season. It prepares you for postseason play. Bringing that back is going to be at tremendous addition.”
Penn State missed the postseason last year and lost five of its last six games. This time, the Nittany Lions will have the Big Ten Tournament to play for along with the NCAA Tournament. The Nittany Lions were eliminated by Oregon in the NCAA regional two seasons ago.
There are still questions surrounding the team, such as whether the offense will live up to Petrini’s expectations and who will emerge as the top pitchers.
“We’re anxious to get on the dirt,” Petrini said, “and finding out who we can count on and who are going to be our go-to kids.”
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