Rutgers demonstrates ability to compete in new conference

As Rutgers (26-14, 10-6) has recorded an impressive mark to this point in the season, senior left fielder Chandler Howard attributed the success to a looser atmosphere among the team.
Photo by Ruoxuan YangAs Rutgers (26-14, 10-6) has recorded an impressive mark to this point in the season, senior left fielder Chandler Howard attributed the success to a looser atmosphere among the team.

During its first year in the Big Ten, the Rutgers softball team has made its mark.

With two series remaining against Penn State and Wisconsin, the Scarlet Knights (26-14, 10-6) stand strong in the top half of the conference at fifth place. 

As the season has progressed, the team has had to adapt to its third conference in as many years, but its true style of play hasn't changed.

“We came in here with the intention of making an impact on the conference this season, and I definitely think we have,” said senior left-hander Alyssa Landrith. “I also think we have exceeded any expectations that we’ve had and I’m really proud of that.”

Most of the time, how a team adjusts to its new conference can be uncertain, but this team is a different group. Evident in their play on the field, the Knights share a strong bond.

“The main thing is to stay loose with one another,” said senior left fielder Chandler Howard. “We have a lot of fun in practice and at the games, so the big thing for us is if we are loose, we will play well. We spend every day together, so we kind of feed off each other and have fun when we are together.”

The adjustment period was made easier with a veteran team.

Although Rutgers only has three seniors, it also boasts plenty of juniors with experience in the likes of third baseman Jordan Whitley, shortstop Melanie Slowinski, second baseman Stephanie Huang and catcher Elizabeth Adams.

While they don’t immediately standout in any offensive, defensive or pitching statistical categories in the Big Ten, the Knights have proven to be effective working with what they have in order to achieve success each time they step out on the field.

The wins have come in different forms.

In its series against Michigan State on April 3 and 4, Rutgers triumphed with a 6-5 walk-off in 11 innings  in the opener before pounding out 22 runs to out-slug the Spartans in game two. 

On Tuesday in their doubleheader against Maryland, the Knights walked off in peculiar fashion with a bases loaded hit-by-pitch for a 6-5 win in the bottom of the seventh before sweeping the Terrapins with a mercy-rule victory in the rubber match.

The unorthodox wins pinpoint the increase in talent that the opposing teams posses, but the athletes have not been the only ones to adjust to the new conference.

Head coach Jay Nelson has had to take a slightly different approach to how he manages his team.

“Yes, big time,” Nelson said when asked if he has changed how he coaches. “I was always a regiment coach. I want them to have fun, but I had a regiment of what they were suppose to do and how to act. But now I’ve had to loosen the reins, because that’s the way they play and when they play their best. They’ve taught me a lot of things, and I am glad for it.”

The Big Ten brings an increased level of competition not experienced in the Big East and American Athletic Conference, which the Knights were previously members of. No series is a sure thing — any team can beat one another on any given night. 

While Michigan (42-6, 15-2), Minnesota (37-7, 12-3) and Nebraska (26-19, 12-5) stand out, they’ve all suffered losses to teams in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

Rutgers welcomes the competition as it adds for the chance to improve, thrive and increase its chances of furthering the season with the goal of NCAA Regionals in mind.

“It’s exactly what I expected,” Nelson said on the Big Ten. “Last place teams can beat your first place (teams), anybody can beat anybody. It’s a very competitive league. The (Ratings Percentage Index) of the league is very different from past conferences helping to possibly get into the NCAA Regionals.”

As conference play winds down, Rutgers has proven it can compete with its Big Ten peers.

And although the Knights have dropped two of their last three Big Ten series, freshman first baseman Rebecca Hall thinks that it only helps them moving forward.

“I definitely think we are back on track,” she said after sweeping Maryland on Tuesday. “I don’t think that we really fell off track. I think it was good to see the competition earlier in the year than closer to the Big Ten tournament, so I think we are in a good spot.”

For updates on the Rutgers softball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.