June 21, 2021

SB : After dominating nonconference schedule, SU begins Big East play at Rutgers

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Comments In each of the last two seasons, the Syracuse softball team has opened its schedule with five warm weather-based tournaments spanning a total of 25 games.  Right around this time a season ago, SU was 14-13.  Ace pitcher Jenna Caira was just 6-8.  And the SU offense was still trying to find production from more than just a handful of hitters. ‘We didn’t have many upperclassmen,’ Caira said of last season, ‘so the coaches were toiling with a lot of new impact players.’A year later, it’s difficult to recognize that unstable group Caira described.  After this season’s opening slate, SU stands at 21-5 while receiving votes in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll and sits in first place in the Big East conference.  The Orange will take that momentum with it to Piscataway, N.J., this weekend, when it will take on Rutgers in a three-game set to open its Big East schedule. The teams will play a doubleheader on Saturday, followed by a noon start on Sunday.The now-vaunted SU offense features seven position players hitting .280 or above — and five of them are hitting better than .300. And the reigning Big East tournament MVP Caira has a 12-4 record, a 1.56 ERA, and is slowly generating All-American murmurs from outside the Syracuse ranks.        ‘Jenna’s been the best pitcher in the Big East so far,’ Rutgers head coach Jay Nelson said. ‘If the voters can’t see that, they clearly aren’t paying enough attention to East Coast softball.’ AdvertisementThis is placeholder textOutside of Caira’s gradual development from talented yet wild riseballer to dominant ace, there are many additional reasons why SU is sitting pretty in first place in the Big East as they open conference play this weekend at Rutgers.  And the Orange will look to carry those strengths of nonconference play into the Big East portion of its schedule.  One of those keys has been success in close games. Eight of SU’s first 12 victories of the season were by a single run, including several come from behind wins that proved the Orange’s resiliency.   ‘Coach Ross has it instilled in our heads that as long as we have an at-bat left, we’re going to win the game,’ catcher Lacey Kohl said.  It also helps to have a pitching staff that consistently holds down Syracuse’s leads after the fifth inning.That has been the result of the maturation of a group that is now largely made up of upperclassmen. So far this season, SU is second in the Big East in both slugging and on-base percentage. No two players represent this combination more than outfielder Rachel Hellman and third baseman Hallie Gibbs.  Hellman is hitting .333 with a .436 on-base percentage out of the two hole. Gibbs leads the team in RBIs with 26 and is tied for second on the team in home runs with four out of the cleanup hole in Ross’s batting order.‘We took a little while to find the right mix a season ago,’ Caira said.Not so this season, as SU got off to the best start in program history. This season, the first full-scale recruiting class of the Ross regime (her first class in 2008 consisted of only three players), the SU juniors are the primary reason Ross has ascended the program towards national recognition.  Together, the class accounts for five of the team’s seven leading hitters and its ace pitcher. Like Caira, SU hitting coach Wally King thinks the reason for the national recognition is the development of what were young players last season into leading roles this season. And with the Orange about to start embarking on the conference schedule, King doesn’t expect that to change.‘We returned all our starters from last year,’ King said, ‘so there’s a unique air of continuity on this team.’[email protected]center_img Published on March 23, 2011 at 12:00 pm Contact Jarrad: [email protected]last_img

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