By Alexander Haynes
After three cancelled games, the Bobcat softball team had a week to practice, improve, and refresh for an onslaught of Sun Belt games. Any concern the team would display rust against Sun Belt rival Georgia Southern Eagles went sailing out the window after scoring three batters into the first inning. The off-week arguably made the Bobcats mentally sharper behind the insightful coaching of Ricci Woodard, who now has the team functioning in all cyclical aspects. After their verbose showing against the Eagles, which even included a comeback win, the Bobcats stand at 25-8 and 8-0 in Sun Belt play. Those records make them a target for the Sun Belt journey of April; simultaneously, the play behind the record proves why the Bobcats are the softball team to beat.
Game One of a Double Header Friday
As stated, only three batters were necessary for the Bobcats to begin racking up runs. Jaclyn Molenaar took four straight balls to commence the game with a walk, followed by Christiana McDowell emphasizing her essential utility role in obtaining a sacrifice bunt. Hailey MacKay was running into a sacrifice bunt to score Molenaar, but quickly pushed safely to first base. Ariel Ortiz hit a two-run homerun off a 2-2 count and Bailee Carter followed suit one batter later with a home run off a seven-pitch count.
As if the first was not damaging enough, the lineup rotated through the second inning, inducing more damage. McDowell athletically moved to first on a procedural throwing error, allowing Molenaar, who had just walked, to advance to second. One wild pitch later proved Eagles pitcher Rylee Waldrep was swimming in chaos just in time for MacKay to drop a double to right, putting two more runs on the board.
Those six runs would be it for the Bobcats as Waldrep managed to calm down and alleviate any more scoring opportunities. The bunts and line drives turned into simple pop-flys, but the damage had been done.
Meanwhile, Randi Rupp came back in full form, striking out the first two innings, four swinging, two looking. Two more batters went down with strike outs in the third before India Davis dared to make contact, ending only in a line drive to shortstop. The Eagles sole run came off freshman Allyssah Mullis hitting a homerun.
By the end of seven innings, Rupp had struck out 14 of 22 batters faced, once again, leaving no doubt of her pitching mastery.
Game Two Provides Exhilaration in Comeback Win
McKenna Fryar receiving the start to the second game of the double header left question in the air. The freshman had not pitched in a week, and sometimes such a break throws pitchers from their system. Fryar began the game with a strikeout, but walked the next batter while playing mental gymnastics on a 3-2, foul-ball laden count. Mullis took the next pitch for a homerun, putting the Eagles up 2-0 early.
As the game ticked on, however, so did Fryar’s confidence tick up. In an objective way, she confidently struck out two batters in the second and forced ugly spray shots to end the third. The fourth inning, unfortunately, pointed toward the inconsistency in Fryar slipping pitches over the zone. Macy Coleman hit a two-run homerun to put the Eagles up 4-1. Meagan King came in afterwards to prevent any more pitches brazening the center of the plate.
A procedural score in the top of the second gave the Bobcats one-run early. Eagles pitcher Kaylee Ramos appeared to be holding the athletic punditry in check, but the Bobcats were merely buying their time, scoring in duos.
Haleigh Davis walking to start inning four lead to Mari Cranek, Sierra Steimel, and McDowell repeating singles to eventually score Davis. By taking advantage of a wild pitch, Cranek scored the second run of the fourth.
Inning five was silence, but the sixth gave the lead to the Bobcats in a tedious process once again involving McDowell advancing Molenaar with a sacrifice bunt. Brianna Sannem and Molenaar would score on a deep single from Tara Oltmann to punctuate the process and give the Bobcats a convincing 5-4, comeback win.
The win was no doubt fun, but the best aspect of the game was the methodical, yet entirely confident approach the Bobcats had – they never doubted in each other’s ability to create the comeback.
The approach the Eagles took to Rupp the day before clearly did not work in their favor. Thus, on Saturday, they attempted to swing for contact. The results: 15 strikeouts, four hits, 107 pitches and no runs in a line up and down, shutout. Hannah Farrell obtained a deep double on one right pitch that was quickly abbreviated by surrounding strikeouts.
The success of Rupp was essential to provide a low-scoring win. Despite the dominance from the day before, the Bobcats took four innings to score. Cranek sent a relaxed triple to deep right, allowing a groundout from Steimel to subsequently score her.
The duo of McDowell doubling and MacKay singling (Kylie Matula pinch ran, scoring for MacKay) established the second and third runs in the sixth. Ariel Ortiz was responsible for the second RBI on a double to right field. The Bobcat softball team had once again astutely and simply wrapped up a game and series with a procedural effort that head coach Woodard has instilled into a special team.
MacKay has maintained her dominating power from earlier in the season. After 97 at-bats, she is standing at seven doubles, seven homeruns, 39 hits, and a 1.191 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). Ortiz is only slightly behind with four homeruns, 29 hits and a 1.038 OPS. The difference between the two is MacKay’s eagerness to chase balls. Her 10 more hits have come with more at-bats, but also the expense of 17 strikeouts to 17 walks. Ortiz has only seven strikeouts and 19 walks.
As mentioned in previous articles, analytically vitality is coming from than just the top-two hitters. McDowell has a slighter .333 slugging-percentage (SLG) but has stolen 10 bases on 11 attempts. And that leaves out her athletic foresight taking advantage of errors. Even the bench is highly productive with Steimel leading the charge off a .920 OPS in seven hits and three walks.
The pitching from Rupp is simply profound, turning 9.44 strikeouts per seven innings pitched. She is the key to the encouraging run for the Bobcats. The concern coming into the season was how a young Fryar and King would handle themselves in supporting Rupp. While both began shaky, they have now found their varying pitches with ample putouts. Yes, they may drop and slip a pitch too far inside at times, but both are well above average NCAA pitchers. Fryar records in at 5.03 strikeouts per seven while walking only .97 batters per seven innings; a confident style that is emblematic of how the veteran mentality is pouring into the younger players.
Featured image by Marina Bustillo-Mendoza.