Rutgers rebounds from shutout to take final 2 games of series against Illinois
After being swept at home for their first Big Ten series of the year, the Rutgers softball team knew it was now or never to get back to its winning ways.
This past weekend, the Scarlet Knights (17-20) proved they were not done just yet, as they impressed by capturing the three-game series win over Illinois (22-12).
“It means a lot. It gets us back into the hunt and into position to make the tournament,” said head coach Jay Nelson of the series win. “That’s our ultimate goal. And to keep improving so we're playing our best ball when we're in that tournament.”
In the first game on Friday, the Knights looked lost and winded.
Rutgers combined for just one hit while starter Dresden Maddox got lit up over her four innings of work. Maddox let up a total of 7 earned runs on 10 hits while taking her seventh loss of the season.
Jade Vecvanags displayed her dominance of a year by shutting out the Knights in all six innings, allowing just one hit and striking our four.
Although there are no excuses in the game of softball, Nelson explained one reason why his team maybe didn’t perform to their usual abilities.
“The first game we played in I think our kids were rung out from the travel,” Nelson said. "We got in late to Indiana and didn’t get back to the hotel 'til late. I think it might have had something to do with that.”
In the second game of the series, on Saturday, freshman Whitney Jones started in the circle for Rutgers.
The Knights drew blood first with senior Melanie Slowinski’s sacrifice fly to score freshman Nicolete Anico.
Jones would get pulled in the third after allowing 3 runs on six hits. Aubrie Levine would get her first win of the season by throwing six innings and only allowing 2 runs on seven hits.
It was Illinois' game until Rutgers put a three spot up in the sixth thanks to Sierra Maddox’s double to right field, which scored Slowinski and Anico. Senior infielder Jordan Whitley added a single down the left field line to drive in Jacqueline Kott to even the score up at 5-5.
It was all Rutgers from that point on as Slowinski started the inning off with a solo shot, giving the Knights 4 more runs to break the game open at 10-5, and exhibit the offensive surge they had bottled up all weekend.
Sierra Maddox had a game of her own, going 3-for-4, scoring a run, adding an RBI and hitting her first of two home runs of the weekend.
“Practicing hard with my team,” Maddox said on crediting her success. “We focus a lot on having quality at-bats and getting our pitch and hitting it hard. We work on that as a team all the time, and I think that really helps everyone contribute.”
In the rubber match on Sunday, the Fighting Illini sent out ace Vecvanags to the circle while the Knights sent junior pitcher Shayla Sweeney.
In what was a gem dominated by Sweeney, Nelson credited senior catcher Elizabeth Adams for doing a phenomenal job behind the dish.
“You gotta give a lot of credit to (Elizabeth) Adams,” Nelson said. “She caught all three games and she learned the hitters from the first game. We don’t call the pitches from the bench, we work with our catchers. She caught all three of these games and did a great job with our pitching staff.”
Sweeney dominated, allowing just 1 run over seven innings of work.
Nelson described her performance against a team that vaunts eight hitters with over a .300 batting average in one word.
“Execution,” Nelson said. “She hit her spots, she worked both inside and outside keeping the hitters guessing on what side she was going to throw to.”
In last weekend's home series, Sweeney knew moving forward she would have to adjust a few things, on top of the nerves of having the game televised nationally.
“Going to the game, I knew I had to focus on keeping the ball low,” Sweeney said. “It was definitely nerve-racking, and the engineer on ESPN was a little nerve-racking too, but it wasn’t too bad.”
Sierra Maddox put the team on her back as she totaled up her weekend to 5-for-10, with 2 runs scored, 5 RBI’s and two home runs.
After starting the season 0-8 and conference play 0-3, Rutgers finds itself at 17-20 and 2-3 in conference play.
“This team has proven to me that you never can count 'em out,” Nelson said. “I try not to think too far ahead. I just try to manage the game and give us the best chance to win. I think if we play our game we can beat anyone.”
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