Rutgers takes long trip to Iowa for weekend series
After not having much success in its first home series of the season, the Rutgers softball team takes its act back on the road, looking for some better results.
The Scarlet Knights (10-27, 1-8) travel to Iowa City to take on Iowa (12-23, 5-6) for three games, Friday until Sunday. The Hawkeyes are on a three-game winning streak, which includes a doubleheader sweep of Nebraska.
Iowa is 5-0 against the Knights in the past thirty years and eliminated Rutgers in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament, which was the last time the teams met. But that was two years ago, and head coach Jay Nelson believes his team has a good shot to win the series.
“They’re ahead of us in the standings, but they don’t have that many wins, so this is a very winnable series,” he said.
The Knights are looking to bounce back from being swept by Nebraska in their first home series. Following their series finale on Sunday, head coach Jay Nelson outlined what his team would focus on during this week’s practice, saying that they would specifically focus on playing first and third on defense, as well as watching some film of the Hawkeyes.
Iowa’s standout players include senior first baseman Kaitlyn Mullarkey, who leads the team with a .283 average, 28 hits and 16 runs batted in (RBIs). They also have two solid pitchers in senior Shayla Starkenburg (4-9) who leads the staff with a 2.86 ERA and freshman Allison Doocy (7-9), whose 83 strikeouts rank sixth in the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, like it has been for most of the season, Rutgers is suffering from a lack of good pitching behind Shayla Sweeney, who herself struggled a bit last weekend. In particular, Nelson singled out freshman Cambria Keefer.
“We have to get Cam out of her funk,” he said. “It’s a mental issue with her. She throws the ball as hard as any of our pitchers and has good upper movement, but she has to grab the bull by the horns, go out there and have a good game.”
On offense, the Knights have found a breakout star in freshman third baseman Anyssa Iliopoulos. She batted .429 in four games last week, had a 1.071 slugging percentage and hit the first three home runs of her career. In addition, she was also named to the Greek National Softball Team and will compete in the European Championships this summer.
“I’m really excited to have this opportunity,” she said to ScarletKnights.com. “Representing Greece will be an honor. Competing at a national level and potentially in the Olympics is a dream come true.”
Iliopoulos, a dual citizen of the United States and Greece, was one of the first seven members selected by the Greek Softball Federation to compete in this year’s competition.
“This is a great opportunity for Anyssa to continue improving her softball skills while expanding her cultural experiences,” Nelson said. “She will cherish this for the rest of her life.”
In addition to Iliopoulos, Rutgers has two standout players that rank high on the Big Ten leaderboards. Freshman second baseman Taryn Atlee is sixth with a .411 batting average and second with 51 hits, both of which are tops on the team. Junior designated hitter Rebecca Hall ranks third with 11 home runs and eighth with 35 RBIs, which are also team-high totals.
In the circle, Shayla Sweeney leads the Knights with an 8-12 record and a 4.82 ERA. But she has struggled over the past few weeks, having lost her last six games. Still, she remains optimistic going forward.
“We’re going to bounce back and get Iowa this weekend,” she said. “They’re good competition, and I think we’ll do well if we do everything right.”
But in order to find success on the diamond, the team must take it one game at a time.
“Every team in the Big Ten is good, so we have to play three good games,” Nelson said. “But we have to play one pitch and one game at a time instead of winning the series. If we can repeat that time and time again, we can get two or three wins in a row.”
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