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Rutgers opens up conference slate in Bloomington

<p>Senior pitcher Shayla Sweeney&nbsp;plans on working in communications and sports media after graduation.</p>

Senior pitcher Shayla Sweeney plans on working in communications and sports media after graduation.

After their most successful weekend so far this season, the Rutgers softball team is looking to start off conference play on the right foot.

The Scarlet Knights (7-19) travel to Bloomington to take on Indiana (14-14) for their first Big Ten series of the season. Including this weekend, 23 of their 26 remaining games are against Big Ten foes.

Rutgers is coming off its first invitational with a winning record, going 3-2 at the Clearwater Spring Break Classic to conclude a week-long stretch in Florida, while winning two consecutive games for the first time all year in the process.

Head coach Jay Nelson said that his team was focusing on limiting its miscues, especially when it came to fielding.

“We need to clean up our mistakes and make sure that we don’t beat ourselves,” he said. “If we get beat by the other team, that’s fine, but when we beat ourselves it’s really tough and lowers our confidence for the next game. We need to keep picking up ground balls and making great plays. We’re going to go out, hope to take the first game, and then take it from there.”

Taking at least one game against Indiana will be a challenge. The Hoosiers head into the weekend on a hot streak, having won eight of their last nine games, including three of four at the Hoosier Classic this past weekend. One of their best players is junior Taylor Uden, who was named the Big Ten Co-Player of the Week after hitting .727 with two home runs, five RBIs, and a 1.636 slugging percentage.

But the Knights have their own players to counter the Hoosiers’ hot streak. On the offensive side of the ball, Rutgers is enjoying great production from multiple players. Leading the team with a .375 batting average is freshman infielder Taryn Atlee, who has had a stellar season to this point. She leads the teams with 33 hits, and as the leadoff hitter, is responsible for setting the table for the power hitters behind her. It’s the reason why she is second on the team in runs scored with 19.

Also of note are junior infielder Rebecca Hall and freshman infielder Nicole Bowman, who are tied for most RBIs on the team with 25. Hall also leads the team with eight home runs. She discussed what she hoped to accomplish over the weekend.

“I’m hoping to eliminate my strikeouts,” she said. “I want to battle at the plate and see more pitches. And as a team, we’ll continue to build on the communication that worked on this past week. That’s one of the biggest things we can improve on. You can always get better at communicating and keeping your energy high.”

As for the pitching, the Knights are led by senior Shayla Sweeney, who is responsible for six of the team’s seven wins and has a team-low 3.68 ERA. Other standout pitchers include sophomore Whitney Jones, who picked up her first win last Sunday against North Dakota State.

The first few weekends of the season highlighted the lack of consistent pitching behind Sweeney, but as Jones pointed out, the rest of the staff has taken steps to improve.

“We’ve all gotten tougher mentally from the beginning of the season until now,” she said. “We’ve learned more to focus on a pitch-by-pitch mindset, focusing 100 percent on one pitch instead of letting things affect us.”

One of Nelson’s biggest takeaways from this past weekend was the improvement of his pitching staff, and it would benefit the entire team for the unit to stay consistent and keep Rutgers in games.

The Knights are riding high on their recent success, and with the Big Ten play starting now, they’re ready to kick it into high gear in order to make the Big Ten Tournament.

”We look at every team the same,” Hall said. “Indiana is a great team, so there will be some great competition. We’re just excited to get out there and play.”

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

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