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February 14, 2013

Hokies strong from top to bottom

By: Marc Mullen

With a powerful lineup and a top-notch pitcher, the Virginia Tech softball team has high expectations for the 2013 season

Jasmin Harrell won 31 games in the circle last season, the third-most in program history for a single season.

There are high expectations for the 2013 Virginia Tech softball team.

With the loss of just two seniors to graduation – who combined to account for just 55 starts in a 63-game schedule – from a team that advanced to the ACC championship game and the NCAA Tournament, the Hokies have a goal of matching or possibly exceeding what the 2008 team accomplished and do not shy away from that.

“Our No. 1 goal, no matter what year it is, is to compete for an ACC title,” Tech softball coach Scot Thomas said. “But sometimes you’re in a situation, where we are this year, that the expectations kind of change a little bit, and our focus is to win an ACC title, and we feel like that we’ll be disappointed if we don’t.

“That’s not to take away from teams that are right there with us because there is Florida State, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, in particular, who are going to be right there – top-25 caliber teams, as well as I think we are. But the expectations are very high for us to win an ACC title and then go on to NCAAs and go as deep as we can.”

For those who don’t remember, the 2008 Tech softball team was the defending ACC tournament champions, but had bowed out in the regionals of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. The Hokies entered the 2008 season ranked 15th in the preseason poll and never dropped out of the top 25, as they won the ACC title again and made a postseason run that landed them in the Women’s College World Series.

Similarities can be seen to this year’s team in a way. In 2012, the Hokies used a six-inning grand slam home run by Kat Banks in an opening-round ACC Tournament game against Maryland to propel them to an unexpected ACC title shot. Tech knocked off No. 21 UNC in the semifinals before losing to Georgia Tech in the finals. The Maryland win, though, cemented an NCAA Tournament bid, where the Hokies went 2-2 and were eliminated by No. 5 and WCWS participant Tennessee.

With that thought in his mind – of another run to the WCWS – Thomas has set in front of his team a challenging schedule, one that mimics the 2008 slate in that it features balanced competition early and a tough road swing to the West Coast before getting into the ACC schedule.

“Scheduling is a science of sorts. You really have to look ahead and predict what your team is going to look like and what you are going to try and get out of them,” Thomas said. “This schedule is very similar to what we put in front of them in 2008, with the expectations of going to the World Series. I think this team, overall, is more talented. We’ve got a great pitching staff. It’s deep. Now, we don’t have an Angela Tincher (former Tech pitcher), but we’ve got some kids that can really get it done. When you have that, and with everyone coming back, you say, ‘Let’s go play a tough schedule.’

“It’s a tough schedule that, when we get into postseason play, the team has seen everything and they shouldn’t be fazed. The team has seen it and done that, and hopefully they are more relaxed and they can go out and be more successful.”

As Thomas stated, more than 90 percent of the team’s pitching staff returns, in terms of innings pitched.

Senior Jasmin Harrell, a 2012 second-team NFCA Mid-Atlantic Team selection and an ACC All-Tournament team member, anchors the rotation. Her numbers last year included a 31-16 record in the circle in 40 starts and 51 games. She tossed 288.1 innings and struck out 227, while posting a 1.97 ERA. She had 33 complete games and 10 shutouts, which included a five-inning perfect game against Liberty.

Not bad for a pitcher who was throwing on a bum knee late in the season.

“I think Jasmin is doing pretty well. She actually started pitching even last fall,” Thomas said. “(The surgery) was basically a cleanup job on her knee. She had some things there that were kind of rolling around, and it was catching on her. So I think she’s going to be good.

“It’s one of those things that you wish, in hindsight, it would have been taken care of before last year because she ended up playing with some pain and discomfort. But what a trooper she was all the way down to the end for us, and we think she’s going to be back 100 percent.”

Also returning is sophomore Bailey Liddle, who was 8-4 with a 3.38 ERA in 26 games. She was second on the team with 91 innings pitched and 56 strikeouts. She had three shutouts, combined on a fourth, and matched Harrell with a save to her record.

Joining the staff are two highly recruited in-state freshmen in Kelly Heinz, the 2011 Gatorade State Player of the Year, and Maggie Tyler, the 2012 Virginia Group AA State Pitcher of the Year. And each impressed during the fall season.

“From a pitching standpoint, as a whole, we have Bailey back as well, which is going to be huge, but I think the two freshmen did a heck of a job in the fall,” Thomas said. “Maggie didn’t allow a run all fall, and Kelly only allowed one run.

“They both did a great job, but because of having both Jasmin and Bailey there with them, they are going to benefit from (the returners’) maturity. We may do a lot of pitching by committee sometimes this season, just to give teams different looks, because we are so deep there, and that’s a positive.”

Backing up that staff is a defensive unit that finished last year 12th in the nation in fielding percentage at .975 and was ninth in double plays turned per game (0.48). And everyone returns.

Looking around the infield, there is senior Courtney Liddle at first base (62 starts in 2012), sophomore Kylie McGoldrick at second base (63), senior Bkaye Smith at shortstop (54) and sophomore Kelsey Mericka at third base (58).

In the outfield, there are juniors Dani Anderson (30 starts in left field) and Kat Banks (44 starts in left or right field) and sophomore Lauren Gaskill (63 in centerfield), while behind the plate senior Betty Rose and her 60 starts return as well.

“No doubt, we are as deep as we’ve ever been, ever,” Thomas said. “And just the quality of kids we’ve got playing behind them, they could be starting somewhere else, but here, they are going to be waiting.

“We were one of the best defensive teams in the nation last year, and I expect us to be the same this year. But the exciting thing after all of that, and knowing what we’ve got pitching wise, you sit back and look at Amanda Ake.

“She hit a couple of home runs in the fall, and she’s going to find a spot in the lineup somewhere. She was a junior-college transfer and did a heck of a job for us in the fall. Then there’s Katey Smith. We used her as a pinch hitter, and she did a good job, and Jess McNamara, who played a lot of AAU basketball and was a late bloomer in the world of softball, she’s really looking good right now.”

The object of the game is to score runs. With great pitching and defense, the demand for a high-powered offense is not a necessity. For good measure, though, the Hokies return their top eight hitters in terms of batting average.

The top of the lineup certainly highlights the offense, starting with Gaskill, who was named an NFCA all-region first-team selection and a second-team All-ACC member. She led the offense with a .312 average, 47 runs scored, 59 hits, 14 doubles and 24 stolen bases and will return as the team’s leadoff batter.

Liddle, who was an NFCA second teamer and a repeat first-team All-ACC selection, led the team with a .519 slugging percentage and a .484 on-base percentage. She enters her senior year second at the school in career home runs (25) and walks (101) and 10th in RBI (99).

Mericka, the cleanup hitter for Tech in 2012, knocked in a team-high 45 runs and slugged nine home runs. As a team, Tech hit 46 home runs, with Liddle connecting for eight and Gaskill six.

“From a pure hitting standpoint, we have an incredible speed/power combination with Gaskill in leadoff,” Thomas said. “Then we’ll go with Kylie, Courtney, and Kelsey, our top home run hitter back from last year. To be honest with you, any of the three in front of her can hit home runs as well, if they get on track.

“After Kelsey, the picture becomes a little more cloudy, but in a positive way, because we’ve got Betty Rose, who has the potential to come back and hit home runs and has done that in the past, and Dani Anderson, who had a great freshman year. She had a little bit of a slump last year, but came back late in the season.

“Logan Spaw, who came up with a lot of big-game hits for us last year, is a potential DP (designated player). Kat Banks, who hit the grand slam against Maryland, hasn’t started the last few seasons at 100 percent, so if she gets on track early, that could be really big time for us.”

The Hokies opened the 2013 season with the Dot Richardson National Collegiate Softball Invitational in Clermont, Fla., and play their first 16 games away from Blacksburg. Tech’s only home game in its first 27 contests is scheduled for March 5 at 6 p.m. against UNC Greensboro.

The expectations are high. But given their talent and experience, this team of Hokies wouldn’t have it any other way.