Rutgers work through rigors of tough Big Ten schedule
When a team enters a strong conference in any sport, it usually takes years for it to adapt to the playing ability of the competition. A newer conference could have better pitching, more prestigious recruits, better hitters and distinguished coaches.
But when the Rutgers softball team joined the Big Ten last year, head coach Jay Nelson was not looking to adapt — he was looking to compete at the highest level.
“Was I impressed? No, I wasn’t impressed to be in the middle of the pack,” Nelson said regarding last years 11-12 finish in the inaugural Big Ten season. “Our goal is to be competitive in the upper third of the conference.”
Last year, the Big Ten boasted three teams in the Women’s College World Series at Oklahoma City, with Michigan making it all the way to the finals and losing the series, 2-1, against No. 1 seed Florida. Minnesota and Nebraska both got knocked out in regionals.
This season, there are currently three Big Ten teams ranked among the top 25 — Michigan at No. 2, Minnesota at No. 22 and Ohio State at No. 24. Additionally, Nebraska and Illinois have both received votes for the top 25.
When facing teams in the Big Ten, Nelson explains consistency is the reason why the conference is so deep.
“The difference between facing a mid-major team is exactly that, they're mid-major,” Nelson said. “They can have a good game, you can have a bad game, you could have a good game, they can have a bad game. The consistency is the difference. In baseball terms, it’s the difference between going from single-A to double-A, triple-A to the major leagues, and the major leagues are always consistent.”
Junior pitcher Shayla Sweeney has seen her ERA rise tremendously over the past two weeks.
One effect of that is Penn State came in and swept the Knights last weekend. But the junior right-hander knows what the Big Ten conference is built on and has high hopes for competing.
“The Big Ten, all the teams are really good,” Sweeney said. “Obviously they got recruited to hit in the Big Ten. Honestly, hitting my spots is what I need to do best when facing them because they can hit the ball any place, anywhere. I struggled this past weekend keeping it low, so you definitely have to keep it low when facing Big Ten opponents.”
The Scarlet Knights may be taking a step back from last year, as they are currently ranked 11th out of the 14 teams in batting average at .268, 42 points lower than last years .310 average.
The pitching staff has also lacked a consistent role this year, mirroring a roller coaster in the way it has been up and down all year, right now sitting at second to worst in the conference at 4.16.
But this is only the Knights' second year in the Big Ten. When facing more and more opponents in the conference, confidence will start to build and recognition will start to show.
“I think we’ve done really well overall,” said sophomore Rebecca Hall. “I think every Big Ten team we play, we're learning new things about them and continuing to improve, which is a good sign for the program.”
With the Big Ten having nine teams batting a clip of .280 or better and five teams batting .300 or better, Sweeney explained that when facing a Big Ten batter, there’s no time to wind down. Every batter is a challenge needed to be taken seriously.
“There’s no slow part in a Big Ten lineup,” Sweeney said. “I can’t take anybody in the lineup lightly. One through nine is always strong. When not facing a Big Ten opponent usually six, seven, eight, nine are the weaker players, but in the Big Ten, one through nine are all strong.”
Rutgers can compete in the Big Ten as it displayed last year.
It is just a step up from most conferences, but Nelson likes his team’s chances if his pitchers and hitters can stay consistent.
“Little more consistent pitching and hitting,” Nelson said. “Our pitchers are very good when they hit their spots. it's when they miss their spots is when we get hurt. Hitting wise, we have to work on a couple of fundamentals and it's basically hitting the outside pitch.”
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