2014 Lafayette Softball Preview
Feb. 12, 2014
For the Lafayette softball program, there is a new focus and a vision put forth by first year head coach Jexx Varner. Varner, who spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach at Kent State, is looking to build the Leopard program into a consistent winner.
Even with that eye to the future, Varner’s focus has not strayed from the challenge of the 2014 campaign.
“We have to learn to play clean and focus on the fundamentals. We have to play smart and take advantage of every opportunity we can,” Varner said. “The fall season really showed how much the little things matter and how important consistency is for us.”
In the fall preparatory season, Lafayette registered victories over St. Joseph’s and Temple, output that Varner hopes will bolster the team’s confidence.
“We showed we could play very well, and we beat two very good Atlantic 10 teams,” Varner said. “They know when they play fundamental ball, they can play against the best teams in our conference and the area. Believing in themselves is going to be important for this team to compete.”
If “confident” and “consistent” are the descriptors for the team as a whole, “efficient” will have to be the adjective for the offense which hit .202 as a team in 2013 with the top two hitters not returning.
“Offensively, we’re going to have to find a way to get on base and execute when we get a chance,” Varner said. “We’ve talked about strikeout to walk ratio from the standpoint of our pitching staff and our offense. I feel it has a direct impact on our batting average as well.”
The team, which has spent significant time utilizing the indoor facilities in January and February at Morel Field House, will get its first taste of outdoor competition on Feb. 22 at the Longwood University Spring Classic in Farmville, Va., the first of three tournaments to open the season.
PITCHERS AND CATCHERS
Senior Melissa Robinson’s performance will go a long way in determining the team’s margin for success in 2014. Robinson has been the Leopards’ top pitcher for each of her first three seasons and has scratched her name all over the Lafayette softball record book.
The Philadelphia native is ranked in Lafayette’s career top 10 in a host of categories: opponent batting average (1st - .275), ERA (7th - 3.03), walks allowed per game (7th - 2.17), strikeouts per game (10th - 2.97), wins (4th - 28), appearances (3rd - 95), games started (2nd - 86), complete games (1st - 77), shutouts (1st - 7) innings pitched (2nd - 580.1) and batters faced (2nd - 2,650).
Robinson has started 70 games in the past two seasons, often throwing three or four games in a conference weekend. Robinson holds the top two spots for innings pitched in a season (240.2 in 2012 and 198 in 2013), but this season Varner and pitching coach Sara Plourde expect to take a different approach for Robinson.
“Melissa Robinson is going to be a huge factor in what we do, and we feel that Lindsey Cherry is going to create a solid 1-2 combination that will take some of the pressure off Melissa,” Varner said.
Cherry and Robinson have similar pitching styles with Cherry featuring more lateral movement and Robinson the heavier thrower. Varner expects to use Robinson in the batting order, as she is the team’s top returning hitter with a .224 average and led the team with 15 RBI.
“I think we’ll see Bryn and Kristyn really improve this season,” Varner said. “Everyone on our pitching staff has been developing new pitches with Sara’s help.”
The strengthening of the pitching rotation will allow Varner to change his use of Robinson in the circle. On conference weekends in previous seasons, Robinson started three or all four games in a Patriot League series. In 2014 with the addition of Boston University to the mix, conference weekends will include just three games, a doubleheader on Saturday and a single game on Sunday.
“We’ll be able to give teams a different look and build confidence with our younger players by utilizing different pitchers,” Varner said. “In the past, opponents had faced Melissa so many times in a single weekend. Using multiple pitchers in a three-game series will give us a better chance for success.”
Handling the pitching staff will be one of three sophomore catchers, Jenna Kulback, Stephanie Schreiber and Allison Brown. Schreiber and Brown, who will both see time at multiple positions, were solid run producers in the fall.
Kulback, who features a strong arm, started 50 of 51 games in her freshman season, but was infrequently in the offensive lineup, seeing just eight at-bats. Schreiber started 13 games. Brown, who will also vie for time at first base, caught three games in 2013 and spent significant time at designated hitter.
The middle infield looks to be a strength of the 2014 Leopard squad. Junior Kristen Berger started 50 games at second base in her sophomore season, a year removed from her rookie entry at shortstop.
The junior, who was an All-Patriot League Tournament selection in 2012, will remain at second base and is the likely pick to hit in the lead-off spot, a role she occupied for much of her first two seasons on College Hill. Berger was the team’s most consistent infielder a season ago, leading the team with a .973 fielding percentage.
“There is a surety with her. A ball hit to her is an out,” Varner said.
“There is leadership out there in the infield. Kristen has done a great job taking Jenna under her wing,” Varner said. “We’ve done well defensively through the fall and we have to continue to have that consistency.”
The contest for playing time at first base is a three-way battle between junior Victoria Vergona, Brown and Marinelli. Vergona played 29 games at first base in 2013, hitting for a .208 average while finishing second on the team in RBI (13). Brown played five games at first as a rookie. Freshman Candace Fields will also compete for time at first.
Across the diamond, Schreiber has planted herself at third base.
“Stephanie really had a fantastic fall season and really earned that position,” Varner said. “She brings leadership on the field and was our best hitter in the fall.
Sophomore Alex Jacinto and Robinson may also see time at third.
Amy Gebhardt, who joins Robinson as one of just two seniors on the roster, is competing with Kelly Lallis in leftfield. Gebhardt started 27 games and played in 36 a year ago while hitting for a .214 clip.
If Lallis isn’t being used in left, she will likely find herself as the starter in centerfield where she started 23 games in 2013 and played in 44 games. Lallis also was used a pinch runner.
When Marinelli and Gornick aren’t toeing the rubber they will each spend time in right field and are likely to hit even when pitching.
The Lafayette outfield will be without Jordan Parsons, the team’s second-leading hitter in 2013 who graduated after starting 51 games in leftfield.
The entire coaching staff is new led by Varner whose previous experience at Kent State University, Robert Morris University and Ashland University prepared him for his first Division I head coaching job.
Varner helped guide Kent State to a 27-21-1 mark in 2013 and the Mid-American Conference East Division title. He worked closely with the outfielders and catchers while also mentoring all of the team's hitters.
Prior to his time at Kent State, Varner was an assistant coach at Ashland University where he helped mentor the Eagles to a 36-13 record and a 2010 NCAA Division II Super Regional appearance. The team set 16 school records and placed seven players on the all-conference team.
Varner also served as an assistant coach for two seasons at his alma mater, Robert Morris. In 2008, the Colonials posted a 30-20 mark, the program's first 30-win season since 1997 while landing seven players on the All-Northeast Conference squad. The two teams on which he coached went a combined 27-9 in NEC play with two regular-season, second-place finishes and two NEC Tournament berths.
Varner wasted little time in naming his coaching staff, tabbing Plourde as the as the pitching coach and bringing in Holt shortly after his hiring.
Plourde is a 2012 graduate of the University of Massachusetts where she earned five All-America honors in four seasons as a pitcher. In 2012, she led the nation in strikeouts, strikeouts per seven innings and fewest hits allowed per seven innings, while ranking fourth in victories with 36 and fifth in shutouts with 13. Plourde finished her career with 1,662 strikeouts, eighth all-time in Division I.
The Atlantic 10 Conference Player and Pitcher of the Year in 2012, Plourde's talents have taken her to the highest levels of softball, as she currently competes for the Canadian National Team. Plourde is also playing professional softball in the National Professional Fastpitch League, pitching for the New York/New Jersey Comets this season after spending a season with the Carolina Diamonds in Salisbury, N.C. in 2012. Plourde worked at Planet Fastpitch in Uxbridge, Mass for nearly a year between Sept. 2012 and May 2013.
Holt, a 2013 Kent State graduate, was a three-year starter in the Kent State infield and left the program tied for sixth in career home runs. She collected Mid-American Conference All-Academic Team laurels during her collegiate career. Holt spent part of the past five years as an instructor at Planet Fastpitch and also served as the head coach of the New England Phoenix Gold.
After a Feb. 8 four-game series at Howard was postponed due to weather, Lafayette is slated to open the season on Feb. 22 at the Longwood University Spring Classic in Farmville, Va. The Leopards will play a total of four games against the host Longwood, a 2013 NCAA Tournament qualifier, and Towson.
The Leopards will play in two more tournaments, competing at the Coppin State Invitational March 7-9 in Baltimore and the Boise State SpringHill Suites Invitational on March 14-16. The Coppin State Field will feature Atlantic 10 squad Rhode Island, Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference and the Northeast Conference’s Rider.
The Boise State field features the Broncos from the Mountain West Conference and Idaho State and Southern Utah of the Big Sky Conference.
“We’ll get to face three of six games against NCAA Tournament level teams,” Varner said of the Boise State field. “We want to see teams that very easily could be in regionals and doing so will help us to move forward. There is tough competition but we have to play up to that level.”
Lafayette will play a non-conference doubleheader at Columbia on March 19 and opens Patriot League play at home on March 22-23 vs. Holy Cross. The following conference weekend takes the Maroon and White across the valley to face the brown and white of Lehigh on March 29-30.
April begins a busy home stretch for the Leopards will who will play seven games in six days vs. Temple, Towson and Patriot League foe Bucknell (April 5-6). Lafayette follows that with five more at home, two vs. Delaware on April 9 and a three-game series with Colgate on April 12-13.
The Leopards will then take to the road for 13 straight games, venturing to St. Joseph’s, St. Peter’s, reigning Patriot League champion Army (April 19-20), Rider and Villanova. The Patriot League’s newest softball entry, Boston University, closes out conference play for the Leopards on April 26-27 in Boston.
Lafayette will finish off the regular season on April 30 with a weekday doubleheader vs. Marist. After the 18-game Patriot League season, the top four teams in the conference will convene May 8-10 for the Patriot League Tournament to be hosted by the top seed. The tournament is a double-elimination event which determines the Patriot League’s automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament.
“Our expectation is to be in the conference tournament,” Varner said. “We’ve done everything with the expectation of being there. Once you get in, anything can happen. We just have to get in the box.”