25-9 Softball takes three games off Carnegie Mellon, cruises toward potential postseason bid
When head coach Michelle Venturella plans her starting lineup each weekend, she runs into a dilemma: sometimes, she has too many options to choose between.
In the bullpen, the coach has six pitchers with a team ERA of 1.81, anchored by seniors Holly Stoner and Madison Denton and reinforced by four underclassmen who average 6.9 strikes per seven innings. Then, she gets to decide on the batting lineup that features experienced leadoff hitter Katie Gould, spark plug freshman Maggie Baumstark with 30 RBIs, and Ashley Kennedy with a .667 slugging percentage. Waiting in the wings are a host of underclassmen, including Erin Reardon, who has scored 12 runs and has a strong outfield arm, and Olivia Craycraft, who has a .415 OBP. “The ‘problems’ that [assistant coach Roya St. Clair] and I have are very good problems, [problems] of ‘Who do we play now?’” Venturella laughed. “So we really love that.”
The team’s strength is a result of both experienced upperclassmen and a strong recruiting push where they ushered in a freshman class of ten players who currently make up 43% of the team. After two years of dealing with restricted play, Venturella wanted to make sure that the team would always be between 20 and 24 players, even if it did pose a bit more difficulty with the day-to-day scheduling. The talent of the new underclassmen complements the existing players, and Venturella said that it has made a world of difference for this team. “Some of the numbers that the non-starters have in some freshmen classes would be strong enough to be on the field, but our players have done so well with it that we’re just looking for the opportunities to get them in,” she said.
“I don’t really care how young or experienced our team is, in that sense; to me, it’s asking ‘what do we have right now?’” she added. “How can we get better, and continue to work on that process? And even though we do have a lot of youth in our lineup, they’re not playing like freshmen.”
The team’s 25-9 record comes on the heels of a strong weekend in Pittsburgh, where they outscored Carnegie Mellon 24-7 over the course of four games. Although the team struggled in the last doubleheader, a low-scoring 2-3 loss, their offensive productivity earlier in the weekend suggests that this misstep was a fluke at the end of a long weekend rather than an issue for the team.
Last year, the team finished the season with a 12-10 record and struggled with a lack of available arms. Now, though, the Bears have increased their pitching depth, which has come in handy in the four game series that are required by UAA rules. While the increased pitching staff may mean less time for each pitcher individually, Venturella’s plans can be more versatile to give opponents a different look over the course of the weekend. Now, the team’s ERA slots them in the top 25 of all Division III pitching staffs, and the team’s offensive productivity has helped support their pitchers. Opponents have a .208 batting average against WashU’s pitchers and have scored 81 runs in comparison to WashU’s 231.
“That’s a big part of our game this year — just being able to produce a lot of runs, not just during one part of the game or not just during one inning, but throughout the entire game,” senior leadoff hitter Katie Gould said.
This team has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2017, where after going 11-5 in the UAA, they lost in the regional round to Coe College. They are currently 11-5 in the UAA and have the second-highest win percentage. Their path to the NCAA tournament is through an at-large bid; the UAA does not have an automatic bid, which means that the team will have to demonstrate the strength of their schedule combined with wins against quality opponents. “Our goal is always to get to postseason and play our best ball at the end of the year,” Venturella said. “With that said, we really try to concentrate on the next game.”
“Making it to the playoffs is realistic for this team,” said Gould. “We’re trying to not get ahead of ourselves and just focus on one game at a time, but I am hopeful and [I] believe that we can make it.”
The Bears are at home this weekend for their last UAA matchup against Emory University, and they conclude their regular season games with a Saturday doubleheader on April 30 against Fontbonne.