Over the first five weeks of the 2011 softball season, Virginia Tech will visit seven cities in five states and play a total of 27 games on the road, including its ACC opener at North Carolina the weekend of March 19-20.
Those travel dates include five tournaments spanning from North and South Carolina to Florida and across the country to Arizona. The Hokies will face at least five NCAA participants from a year ago, including Super Regional qualifier Arizona State in its Diamond Devil Invitational on March 12. That journey starts this weekend in Charlotte as the Hokies open their 2011 season Saturday at the 49er Round Robin.
“We’ve scheduled like this for years. The biggest reason is because this sport is not meant to be played in cold weather,” head coach Scot Thomas said. “But this is also the best way to prepare us for the ACC schedule and build up our RPI.
“This schedule puts us in the position to be successful, which will help us get better each week and get on a roll heading into ACC play.”
On the contrary, though, 21 of the their last 29 contests will be played at Tech Softball Park, which includes a visit from two-time defending ACC Champion Georgia Tech (April 9-10). In Blacksburg, the Hokies have enjoyed considerable success, apparent by their overall 170-66 mark in 14 years.
“At home, we haven’t played as well as I would like us to,” Thomas said. “I think this is something we need to make a priority. We probably have one of the better crowds in the ACC, and I think our girls feed off of our fans and it’s a real positive place for us to play, which it should be.
“I think this is definitely a team that should be in postseason this year. We were one inning away from playing for the ACC title and we have most of our team coming back. We will have to go out there and take care of business, but I think the girls are really ready for that part and that is well within our reach.”
If Virginia Tech wants to return to the postseason, it will need to receive consistent performances from its pitching staff, which returns three Hokies to the circle who threw 95 percent of the innings in 2010 and won 24 of the 25 games from a year ago.
The trio includes a pair of seniors – Kenzie Roark and Ashton Ward – and sophomore Jasmin Harrell.
Roark was the team’s leader in starts (30), innings pitched (176), strikeouts (143), complete games (13), shutouts (4) and ERA (3.06). She won a total of 10 games, including four of her last six starts, and was named to the ACC’s all-tournament team thanks in part to an eight-inning, five-hit shutout against second-seeded Virginia in a 1-0 Hokies’ victory.
“Kenzie is going to have to be our No. 1, for sure, someone we can lean on,” Thomas said. “But I think if we can stay healthy for the first time in a couple of years, hopefully, we can work as a staff. It will be more of a pitching staff by committee.”
Harrell, in her first season at Tech, tossed 141.1 innings and struck out 93 batters. She finished with an 11-10 record and set a school record with 19 relief appearances, while completing eight of her 17 starts.
Ward also returns and registered a 3-0 mark, while Tech won all six games in which she started. In her first season as a Hokie – she transferred from Tennessee and was 27-5 in her freshman campaign with the Lady Vols – she threw 42.2 innings, struck out 30 and completed two of her six starts.
“We are hoping that Jasmin can come back strong after having a great fall,” Thomas said. “We’re also hoping that Ashton can step up and give us some innings along with [freshman] Kat Banks, who has been really good so far.
“There might be games where we pitch two or three pitchers, and they are going to have to give it their best.”
Offensively, the Hokies were among the top four in many categories in the ACC, which includes second in conference-only games in slugging percentage and home runs.
However, Tech was sixth in on-base percentage and had the second-highest number in strikeouts in overall and ACC-only games.
“Last year was a misnomer, because we were injured so much, and since we had so many people hurt, we were never able to get a consistent lineup in there,” Thomas said. “And that hurt us. “But one of our main focuses from the beginning of fall has been hitting the ball with more power. So, we are hoping that will show up, maybe not in the home run category, but in extra-base hits.”
Speed, which is needed for extra-base hits, could be the key for the Hokies this season as they swiped 79 bags last year and all four Hokies who were in double figures return for the 2011 season.
Senior centerfielder Richelle McGarva used her speed last season to lead the team with 13 doubles, 50 hits and 82 total bases and also stole 14 bases. Also, among returners, she had the highest average (.279) and drove in the most runs (31).
Sophomores Bkaye Smith (second base) and Sarah Ashby (outfield) used their legs to steal 24 and 15 bags, respectively, but will need to improve their on-base percentage (.295 and .211) to produce even more runs for the Hokies.
Smith crossed the plate a team-high 33 times and had 47 hits, but her nine walks compared to a team-high 49 strikeouts is a cause for concern. In a limited role, Ashby swiped many of those bags as a pinch runner, but was successful enough to score 12 times.
Ward also played in the outfield and was actually one of three players on the team to start all 58 games last season with Smith and the departed Kristin Graham. The ACC all-tournament team member had 12 stolen bases, scored 21 runs, drew 19 walks, second most on the squad, and sported a .324 on-base percentage.
“Scoring speed will definitely be one of our top strengths this season,” Thomas said. “Our speed from first-to-third, or second-to-home, not so much base-to-base. We should be able to steal some bases, but I think we have some really good base runners in a two-base scenario, and that’s how we will score some runs.”
The questions arises, though, if these runners get on, steal bases, and move into scoring position, who will drive them in? Gone are Misty Hall, and her team-high 34 RBI, Graham (27) and Whitney Davis (17).
Again, McGarva leads all returners with 31, but only one other returning Hokie had more than 16, and that’s if you do not include driving herself in.
Sophomore Courtney Liddle hit a freshman-record 11 home runs last year, but drove in just nine others. She did have eight doubles, 80 total bases and scored 26 runs. The ACC all-tournament team selection at catcher also threw out 12 base stealers behind the plate.
Ward had 16 RBI, followed by juniors Kristen Froehlich (first base) and Kelsey Hensel (utility), who each drove in 13, while senior Kristina Cruz (third base) and junior Marra Hvozdovic (outfield) had 12 apiece.
“We lost Misty and Whitney, but I think the kids that are coming in to replace them are at their stature or better, and the kids coming in are just as good as what we lost,” Thomas said. “Yeah, we expect Courtney Liddle, Bkaye Smith and Richelle McGarva to have great seasons, but we have some other great kids.
“Kristina Cruz has really worked hard and had a great fall, and I am looking forward to the sophomores, who now have a year under their belts to step it up for us.”
Thomas is also interested in how the freshmen will handle the spring, two in particular.
“Dani Anderson had an incredible fall, hitting some home runs and just doing some things like Misty used to do for us. She is just a solid, steady shortstop,” he said. “Kat Banks is just an incredibly raw athlete, and is probably the fastest kid on the team. She can hit with power and has incredible bat speed.
“But this is a great team to work with. They work hard. I am excited about the season, and I know they are to. So it should be good as long as we stay healthy and keep things moving in the right direction. This will be a fun bunch to watch.”
And Hokie fans, again, will have 13 dates from March through May to come out and see them play.
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