Rutgers hopes to dig out of Big Ten hole at home against Michigan State
With the regular season winding down, the Rutgers softball team finds itself in 13th place out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, on the outside looking in at the conference tournament. And in order to gain ground on teams above them, it will have to puts its heart into each game down the stretch — that starts now.
The Scarlet Knights (12-31, 3-12) will host Michigan State (25-19, 7-10) for a three-game series starting on Friday. The series kicks off eight straight home games to conclude the regular season after playing 40 of their first 43 on the road.
Only the top 12 teams qualify for the conference tournament, and Rutgers would not qualify if the season ended today. So a series win would go a long way toward making up ground on the teams above it.
Head coach Jay Nelson said that he wants to qualify for a particular group of graduating players.
“I want to make the tournament for our seniors,” he said. “They have made it twice and have worked hard to get there again. I want to do it for the whole team and for the school, but I want to see (the seniors) leave satisfied with what they’ve done.”
The Spartans are currently in a three-way tie for seventh place in the Big Ten and have won four of their last six games. This includes taking two out of three from Ohio State, who is currently receiving votes in the national polls.
On the other hand, the Knights are coming off a series loss at Penn State, where they lost the first two games before winning on Sunday. As one of the teams just above them in the standings, it was definitely a setback to lose the series.
As usual, Nelson outlined his plan for how Rutgers would practice, based on what he saw during its last few games.
“We’re going to focus on outfield-infield communication,” he said. “We had an error on Sunday where our shortstop (Nicole Bowman) went after the ball, our left fielder (Hailey Hoklotubbe) called for it, but (Bowman) stayed on it. They collided and it went for a double. Communication has to happen, or else someone will get hurt. The shortstop has to know to get away when the left fielder says something and have confidence that they’ll catch the ball. It’s part of getting used to playing with each other.”
As for the pitchers, Nelson said that he plans on using senior Shayla Sweeney and sophomore Whitney Jones as his starting pitchers this weekend. Sweeney didn't have a particularly great weekend against Penn State, pitching just two and two-thirds innings over the three games while surrendering 11 runs. Jones, on the other hand, pitched brilliantly, especially on Sunday when she gave up just 3 runs and five hits over six and two-thirds innings to help Rutgers to victory.
Meanwhile, in the bullpen, senior Aubrie Levine said that she expects to see some action.
“Whatever I do, I just hope that I can help out my team,” she said.
But as the season winds down, it brings with it the end of the school year, which sometimes puts pressure on athletes to balance out practicing with studying. Although some, like junior Rebecca Hall, said it’s not that different than the rest of the year.
“It’s basically the same as the rest of the semester,” she said. “You just have to balance your schoolwork and practice time. We’re pretty used to it by now, so everyone has adjusted to it pretty well. Every student at Rutgers is going to have a higher workload before finals, so you have to focus on time management and schedule time for schoolwork as well as practice and games.”
Hall said that her coaches and academic staff do a great job to help them with their work and making sure that they stay on top of both classes and games.
Making up ground will be difficult considering the way the Knights have been playing recently, so they will have to take it slow in order to succeed this weekend and for the rest of the regular season.
“I just hope that we keep battling and not get overwhelmed,” Hall said. “We have to play it one pitch and one inning at a time.”
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