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Rutgers targets series sweep at Penn State

The budding rivalry between Rutgers and Penn State sees action once again Happy Valley this weekend. 

This time, it takes place on the diamond between the schools two softball programs.

In the minds of most Rutgers students and alumni, when thinking of which team they dislike the most in the Big Ten, Penn State is first to come to mind. 

While the softball series won’t bring the same aura or atmosphere of the Big Ten football game played in Piscataway on Sept. 13, it carries huge dividends for the Scarlet Knights.

A possible sweep would be huge and give Rutgers (26-14, 10-6) a greater chance to improve its positioning and seeding for the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.

“I’m really excited for this series,” said freshman first baseman Rebecca Hall. “I think we can sweep them, so I think it will motivate us and we will play well and win. We have to come out and practice hard every day this week and keep our energy high in the first game on Friday.”

Carrying the momentum from the sweep of Maryland will be crucial.

Head coach Jay Nelson is entering his 30th season as a softball head coach — at the high school or the division one level — and maintains the old school mentality of not letting rivalries get in the way of performing a task.

“We take one game at a time,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. Our losses to Michigan are the same as a possible loss to Penn State. You play every game the same. The other team is ‘Brand X.’ Their name on the shirt should mean nothing. We need to play our game to win.”

Penn State (24-24, 6-11) enters the series struggling, having dropped seven of its last ten. However, the team has kept it respectively close in those games losing on average by 2.14 runs per game in that stretch.

In order to ensure the sweep, the Knights will need to control the pace of the game from the moment they descend into State College.

As Nelson has reiterated multiple times, momentum is only as good as the next starting pitcher — and that is especially true for this series. 

With senior left-hander Alyssa Landrith (14-8) and her 3.29 ERA being the epitome of consistency, she likely won't worry fans or Nelson.

The issue is figuring out whether sophomore right-hander Shayla Sweeney or junior right-hander Dresden Maddox will show up for the second game of the series. 

Will it be the Dresden Maddox that went six and one-third innings against Ohio State or will it be the one who lasted just one-third of an inning against Maryland? Will it be the Shayla Sweeney who shut down Maryland or the one who has been shaky in past relief appearances?

It has never been a question of the talent for Rutgers, but of consistency. The hits will be there for it to help the pitchers' confidence, but they need to reciprocate the dependability.

Rutgers will face a Penn State lineup that ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten in batting average, which can allow the Knights' pitching staff to establish a dominant string of outings over the weekend.

They will, however, have the task of getting junior outfielder and local New Jersey product Lexi Knief, who boasts a .411 batting average on the season. They will have to be very strategic with pitch location when they face freshman infielder Alyssa Van Derveer and junior outfielder Macy Jones, who have 12 and 10 home runs, respectively.

Senior left fielder Chandler Howard echoed that Rutgers can’t let Penn State dictate its style of play and that they must continue to attack and not stop with its plan.

The Nittany Lions have a solid 1-2 punch on the mound with sophomore Marlaina Laubach and freshman Jessica Cummings starting 32 of the 48 games and posting a combined 4.29 ERA — good for fifth-best in the Big Ten. 

However, both give up over a hit per inning, which can help open the door for the Knights' bats to get some runs.

“We are doing well of late,” Howard said. “(Beating Maryland is) a huge confidence boost. It allows us to feed off the momentum, and we are feeling really good going in to the series against Penn State (and) looking to get some wins.”

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

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