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Rutgers embarks on new season, eyes Big Ten championships

<p>Senior pitcher Dresden Maddox is penciled in as the Knights lead ace this season. During her time on the Banks, she has compiled a 20-13 record and 151 strikeouts.</p>

Senior pitcher Dresden Maddox is penciled in as the Knights lead ace this season. During her time on the Banks, she has compiled a 20-13 record and 151 strikeouts.

The Rutgers softball team is poised for a sound campaign in the 2016 season. The pieces for success are in place, but there are big shoes to fill.

The Scarlet Knights lost arguably the three best players in program history to graduation at the conclusion of last year’s season in Jackie Bates, Chandler Howard and Alyssa Landrith.

Bates was one of the top hitters in program history. She holds the program-record with 40 home runs.

The Lincroft, New Jersey, native crushed 22 bombs last season and amassed 56 RBIs and 38 walks, all program bests for a single season.

Howard started in 47 games at left field for the Knights last season, leaving Rutgers ranked third all-time in hits with 211 and tied for third all-time in trips to the plate with 638.

Landrith was a Second Team All-Big Ten honoree as senior and boasts 67 wins in her career, the most of any pitcher in program history. The left-hander pitcher struck out 642 batters in her career — a program record — in 746 1-3 innings pitched throughout her four years on the Banks.

If there is anyone who could find the proper methods to fill the gaps of the departures of those players, it's Jay Nelson. The head coach entering his tenth year at the helm believes his top players from last season are irreplaceable, so he'll have to make small tweaks to his game plans.

“I don’t think you replace them,” Nelson said on Bates, Landrith and Howard. “I think you move on and you play a little bit differently.”

The Knights went 29-20 (11-12, Big Ten), the most wins since 2013, and was the seventh seed in the Big Ten Tournament last year. 

The team fell to tenth-seeded Iowa (18-39) in the first round of the tournament, 5-3.

This season, Rutgers has clear goals in mind — doing well in the Big Ten Tournament and winning the conference championship. 

The Knights have been practicing at the Rutgers Athletic Center and in the Rutgers Indoor Practice and Conditioning Facility — commonly referred to at the Bubble — on Busch campus during the offseason.

In order to make preparations for the season, the team has taken an overhaul and worked on all aspects of the game.

“We’re basically going over everything,” Nelson said. “We’re going over our offensive signs and plays. (On) defense, we’ve been working again, defending other team’s plays. A lot of repetitions on ground balls. We’ve had a hard time finding a place for fly balls because the bubble has been down … So it’s just basic softball that we’ve been working on.”

The Knights have a very strong group of position players this season.

Senior Elizabeth Adams gives the team a veteran presence behind the plate. Adams started at catcher for 46 games last year as a junior. 

On most teams, the coaches call the games for the catcher, but at Rutgers, Adams runs the show.

“I think we’re all very excited, pretty eager especially with how the winter has treated us this year and some hiccups with the weather, the bubble down and stuff like that,” Adams said. “But I think that for our first time, for our cleats to touch dirt, that’s what we’re all eagerly anticipating.”

On the mound, senior Dresden Maddox will be the team’s ace. She won eight games in 12 starts last year and threw a complete game against St. Mary’s.

“During the offseason, obviously, I pitched a lot,” Maddox said. “(And I tried) to stay in shape, (I) wanna make sure I’m conditioned and ready to go. I just wanted to work a lot on attacking batters and pitching to my strengths and just being ready to go out and help my team out the best I can.”

The team also boasts an outfield with a lot of depth and a very experienced infield. Senior shortstop Stephanie Huang, senior second baseman Melanie Slowinski, senior third baseman Jordan Whitley and sophomore first baseman Rebecca Hall are all returning starters at their positions in the infield.

“I have three seniors and Becca (Hall) will probably be the starting first basemen and she’s played last year but Bridget can play first base too," Nelson said. "Right now, Becca hits a little better than Bridget and that’s why she’s in there. But the comfort level is they know all our plays. I don’t have to tell them, they can run pick offs on their own and run a first and third play in their sleep."

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

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