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February 18, 2014

Hopes high again for Tech softball squad

By: Marc Mullen

The Hokies saw their top hitter and pitcher depart, but coach Scot Thomas is optimistic about his team’s chance at reaching an NCAA regional for the third straight year

Lauren Gaskill is moving to shortstop, and she’ll be Tech’s leadoff hitter after hitting .299 a year ago and leading the team with 20 stolen bases.

The Virginia Tech softball program has come full circle since its first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference and should hope that trend continues.

Back in 2005, the Hokies earned their first bid of what would become four straight trips to the NCAAs, and they ended that stretch in 2008 by advancing out of the regional round for the first time on their way to the Women’s College World Series.

After three seasons of missing out on the NCAAs, Tech has been back to the postseason each of the past two years, but has failed to make it out of the opening round both times – just like in 2005 and 2006.

Maybe he was trying to buck that trend, or maybe he wanted to bring back some of that 2008 magic, but when head coach Scot Thomas had an opening on his staff late last summer, he turned to a familiar name among Hokie Nation and hired Angela Tincher O’Brien as the team’s pitching coach.

“Everyone’s been really excited [of Tincher O’Brien returning],” Thomas said. “I think the girls already feel like they have a good working relationship with her. They just feel like the things that they are learning now are very much a positive, and they are heading in the right direction.

“So we are excited. I think the pitching staff as a whole is excited about where they are. They are excited about the new relationship, and it’s just a matter of applying it to game circumstances.”

Tincher O’Brien, who was a three-time All-American and the 2008 national player of the year, will help a young staff led by sophomores Kelly Heinz and Maggie Tyler, who will combine to replace last year’s ace, Jasmin Harrell.

Heinz performed well in her rookie campaign, leading the team with a 2.68 ERA in 156.2 innings. She posted a 17-8 record, with three saves, and she struck out a team-high 169 batters. Tyler showed promise in her first season, going 3-2, with one save and a 3.12 ERA in 60.2 innings. She struck out 44.

“Kelly had a lot of big wins last year against some big-named teams, ranked opponents and so forth,” Thomas said. “So the expectations for Kelly are to come back and have a similar sophomore campaign, and she’s somebody who we are going to kind of lean on because she has been in big games.

“But Mags [Tyler], it probably didn’t play out the way we kind of had anticipated for her last year. She probably didn’t get quite the number of games early, but she did down the stretch. In fact, we started her in the ACC tournament against NC State because they had not seen her, and she was starting to really get more innings at the end.

Two-year starter Kylie McGoldrick returns at second base after
earning first-team All-ACC honors following a sophomore
year in which she hit .344 and had 11 homers.

“Expectations for Maggie are equal to Kelly, and we see them as two No. 1s and not just a 1 and a 2. I think they do different things. They’re two different kinds of pitchers, but both of them can be effective in their own rights. So that’s kind of where we’re looking to utilize them as two No. 1s instead of a 1 and a 2.”

Right behind the circle, the pitchers will see two familiar faces, though one might need a second glance. Junior Kylie McGoldrick returns as a two-year starter at second base (113 career starts), while junior Lauren Gaskill will move from centerfield (122 career starts) to shortstop. McGoldrick, a first-team All-ACC choice, hit .344 last season, with 11 homers and 33 RBIs. Gaskill hit .299 and led the team with 20 stolen bases.

Gaskill replaces Bkaye Smith in the infield and will team with McGoldrick as Tech’s double-play tandem. It won’t be too unfamiliar to the duo, though, as they played for three years at those positions on the same high school club team – Newtown Rock Gold out of Newtown, Pa.

“Lauren is a tremendous athlete, and of course, she played shortstop in high school, so it’s not like it’s a big move,” Thomas said. “As a matter of fact, I think all of our outfielders are former shortstops, so we’re taking athletes and putting them where we feel like we need them to be, and Lauren is very capable of playing.

“She doesn’t have the big arm in the hole, but she’s going to get balls and keep them in the infield, which is great, and we feel good about it. And then she and Kylie have a lot of confidence in each other playing up the middle together, so I think that will be a comfort for her, and they’ll be great together.”

The biggest question mark on defense for the Hokies entering the 2014 season will be behind the plate. Tech lost both Courtney Liddle and Betty Rose, who platooned last year at catcher, to graduation, and Kelsey Mericka, who was the frontrunner to start this year, is taking a redshirt year because of an injury, thus leaving a hole.

A number of players saw action at catcher during the fall, but Michelle Prong, a transfer from Stanford, may get the starting nod despite just enrolling in classes in January. Tech’s staff recruited Prong out of Victor High School in Victor, N.Y., but she chose Stanford instead. With a degree already in hand, she comes to Blacksburg with two years of eligibility left and Pac-12 experience under her belt.

“Well, the catcher position is not a place where you want to have a question mark, but we do,” Thomas said. “Kelsey Mericka is who we thought was going to be there, but she had surgery, and she’s going to be out for the year.

“Katey Smith [who took a redshirt year last season] is who we worked there in the fall, and she did a really nice job. I think Katey can be great back there. She knows the game. She’s a former shortstop herself, a big kid with a great arm, and she’s thrown great pop times [from the time the ball hits the catcher’s glove until the time it hits the glove of the middle infielder at second base]. It’s just a matter of her having to hit to stay in the lineup.

“Michelle Prong has some experience behind the plate as well. She’s really a true utility player who can catch, play outfield and play infield. Again, it’s going to come down to who’s hitting, and then the catching spot is a little bit different. You got to have someone who can receive and catch, but I feel confident that Katey or Michelle can handle that.”

Liddle, who returns to the Tech dugout as a volunteer assistant, also led the Hokies at the plate and her .347 batting average, 42 runs, 37 RBIs and .489 on-base percentage will have to be replaced.

Kelly Heinz becomes the ace of Tech’s pitching staff after going
17-8 during her freshman season.

That’s where Thomas begins to point to newcomers like Elizabeth Birle out of Winter Spring, Fla., and Vanessa Gonzalez from Torrance, Calif. He also believes that some veterans need to live up to their potential, but sometimes the production comes from the least likely of places.

“Well, Bkaye [Smith] was the big surprise for us last year,” Thomas said. “She had struggled offensively basically for the first three years, and then she had a nice year last year for us and really set the table for the top of the lineup. That was a big loss, but there is always someone ready to step up.

“Vanessa Gonzalez led us in the fall. She’s going to be playing in the outfield. Elizabeth Birle is a kid who comes into here with mad power, and she’ll be able to replace anything that Courtney left us there.

“And there is always someone that steps up and gets it done. I think it will be interesting to see where Bailey Liddle is, if she can come back and be consistent and get it done. And then there are some other people, like Dani [Anderson] was up and down, but Dani has the potential to be a .300 hitter. So there are a lot of question marks, not in ability, but in who is going to step up, and a lot of that you don’t know until the games start.”

Three new teams enter the ACC on the softball side, as Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse all field teams. That brings the total number of softball teams to 11, of which eight will advance to the conference tournament.

Not only does the addition of new teams alter the postseason, but it also changes the dynamic of the regular season, and the Hokies have certainly drawn the short straw when it comes to the ACC schedule. Their first four conference series will be against the preseason top four teams in the league, as voted on by the ACC’s coaches and released Feb. 3.

“The way the league plays out, we never had to play league games prior to spring break,” Thomas said. “This year, we have North Carolina before we leave for spring break, Florida State on spring break in the middle of the week and then we come back here and play Notre Dame.

“So you got a team in North Carolina, who is a perennial power in our league; Florida State, who is predicted to win it; and then Notre Dame, who was in a regional with us as a perennial power in the BIG EAST. Then we turn around and the next weekend play NC State, who won the conference [last year].

“So we are seeing the top teams right away, and then there are still some tough teams, like Georgia Tech. They’re going to be really good. I think you’ll see new life out of Virginia. So there is going to be quality, but we define our season early on.”

Thomas believes that Tech’s nonconference schedule will prepare it for later and hopes that a couple of big wins early, like say at preseason top-10 Alabama or against a Big Ten team like Michigan State or Illinois, will build the team’s confidence heading into the second half.

And that’s most important – how a team finishes, not how it starts. Just ask the 2008 squad, which sat at 14-8 after a March 8 loss to Notre Dame. The Hokies then ripped off a 35-9 string that took them to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series.

They hope history repeats itself.