Softball hanging tough despite lack of depth
In preseason, reflecting on her team’s difficult situation, Augustana softball head coach Gretta Melsted had one principle in mind: G.R.I.T.
It stands for greatness, resilience, intensity and tenacity. Melsted formulated the acronym as a verdict for her 13 players.
“That’s how this team is going to be successful,” Melsted said. “This team just absolutely has to outwork and just out-determine every team we play.”
Despite starting the season with just 13 players, an inexperienced pitching lineup and a projection of finishing fourth in the NSIC preseason poll, Melsted’s axiom seems effective.
The Vikings swept Wayne State Tuesday to begin conference play, bringing their record to an admirable 17-7, good for fourth in the NSIC.
Melsted believes if the team “continually gets better, little bit by little bit, every single day” they can win the conference, but she admits there are factors against them.
In particular, the team’s small number of players. While average team has between 14 and 16 players, the Vikings have dwindled to 11 after junior catcher/outfielder and NSIC preseason player of the year Maggie Kadrlik and junior outfielder Morgan Beaner both were injured early in the season. While Beaner is set to return soon, Kadrlik is out for the season.
Melsted said a small roster comes with pros and cons. While young players assume larger roles and players get more chances to improve at their positions, they must also play cautiously to avoid injury, and having no substitutes can take a toll on players’ bodies.
Senior shortstop Sarah Kennedy said the lack of depth is on her mind.
“Larger numbers means you have a deeper team,” Kennedy said. “You might not have as many talented people, but if someone gets injured, then you don’t have to shuffle the pieces around as much to try to fill everything in.”
But, Kennedy said, in terms of team chemistry, small teams have the greatest advantage.
“Our team is so cohesive because we have such a small amount,” she said. “I really just think our team chemistry and cohesion are just better than any team I’ve been on in my entire life.”
With only two seniors and the bulk of the team being sophomores and freshmen, another factor against the team is inexperience-especially on the pitching staff.
Consisting of junior Lexy Pederson, sophomore Maggie Dunnett and freshmen Olivia Wolters, Melsted said the lineup, with the exception of Pederson, is young and must to adjust to playing at a conference level.
“Trying to figure out exactly what our pitching staff is going to [be] has been one of the biggest things in the entire season,” Melsted said. “And they have made remarkable strides from the fall to now.”
The biggest difference between high school and collegiate softball is that all batters are dangerous, Wolters said.
“If you get [a pitch] even somewhat on the plate, it’s gone,” Wolters said. “You have to be so much more precise at this level.”
Wolters says there is no ace on the staff, that each pitcher just brings a different style to the mound.
While Wolters has 67 pitched innings and 57 strikeouts under her belt so far, Pederson is hot on her tail with 63 innings and 40 strikeouts.
Coaching ahead, Melsted said team members must hold each other accountable and ensure everyone steps up to fill the gaps in the lineup. She said experience will come, they just have to put in the effort.
“The biggest thing is we’re still inexperienced at a really high level of play,” she said. “And they’re still learning what it takes to play at this level and be a really phenomenal team.”
She said inexperience was the primary factor behind last year’s NSIC Tournament loss against Minnesota Duluth.
“When we lost in the conference tournament, my joke was I was the only coach in America who didn’t just pat their team on the back and just tell them ‘what a great season’,” she said. “I actually just ripped them. I went after them like you wouldn’t believe.”
Her strict coaching is intentional and aims to promote growth; Melsted said.She said it will continue this season. If the team remains consistent both at the plate and on the mound, Melsted predicts theteam will peak during conference, play. But the key is consistency.
“Consistency, that is the mark of great teams,” she said. “As I always tell the kids, ‘We are a really good team, flatout. But we want to be a great team. And the difference between good and great is a hair, but to get there is so hard.’ And so that’s what we’re focusing on every single day is to really learn how to be that great team and play like that great team.”