Rutgers takes step backward in disappointing season
Heading into this season, the Rutgers softball team had middling expectations.
The Scarlet Knights were coming off a season where they finished with a 24-33 record, went 8-15 in the Big Ten and lost to Ohio State in the first round of the conference tournament. And with a roster mostly made up of underclassmen, it was expected that they would take a small step back this season. And as it stands now, that’s exactly what has happened.
The Knights are currently 13-33 with a 4-14 record in Big Ten games. If the season ended today, they would finish in 13th place, missing the 12-team conference tournament.
“So far it’s been kind of a disappointing season in the sense that we don’t have the wins that I think we should have,” head coach Jay Nelson said. “But in another sense, we’re learning and getting better. Right now we’re playing the best ball we can, and if we step it up, who knows?”
With nine players on the team that are either freshmen or sophomores, Nelson admitted that he expected some growing pains at the beginning of the season. And those fears came to fruition, as Rutgers lost 17 of its first 21 games. But he said that as the season has progressed, the rookie mistakes, especially when it comes to communication, have gone down.
“We’re learning how to be in the right position at the right time,” he said. “Some of our losses early on were because we were out of position. As that gets better, we feel more comfortable about how we play. Learning how to play the game at this level is the biggest thing for us.”
And these improvements have not been lost on the players, especially the seniors.
“We knew that this would be a challenge, but our focus this year has been getting better every game,” said junior infielder Rebecca Hall.
The Knights have had a lot of standout performances this year from multiple players. At the top of their lineup is freshman Taryn Atlee, who has been one of the team’s top producers in her rookie year. She leads the team in batting average, hits and runs, and was named as one of 15 finalists for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s Freshman of the Year Award.
Behind her are the power hitters that have been the core of Rutgers’ lineup. Hall leads the team with 11 home runs, 44 RBIs and a .692 slugging percentage. Junior catcher Sierra Maddox has the second-most home runs on the team with four. Freshman shortstop Nicole Bowman is second on the team with 34 RBIs, is tied for third with three home runs and leads the team with 12 doubles.
And when it comes to the circle, there is one pitcher who sees more action than any other. Senior Shayla Sweeney leads the staff with a 4.83 ERA, nine wins, 136.1 innings pitched and 10 complete games.
After her comes sophomore Whitney Jones, who Nelson praised for her progress over the season.
“She’s getting to be a top pitcher here,” he said. “She’s pitched well this season.”
As for the season as a whole so far, the Knights have experienced some memorable moments. One that stood out for many was last Sunday’s win against Penn State, the first time they beat the Nittany Lions since joining the Big Ten. The Knights were down by two in the seventh, but rallied with 4 runs in the frame for a 6-4 win.
“We had each other’s backs through everything,” Sweeney said.
Performances like that show that the Rutgers is not done yet, even if it’s down in the standings. It has shown fight all year and has a lot of players who can make a big impact on a game. The script is not finished, and it’s up to the Knights to write the final page.
“We’re just going to take it pitch by pitch and keep a positive attitude towards everything,” said senior pitcher Aubrie Levine. “We know we’re not out yet.”
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