After a week off, the Ohio State softball team (9-4) is set to head west to Tempe, Arizona, for the Louisville Slugger Invitational hosted by Arizona State. The Buckeyes are slated to face four opponents, three of which are ranked in the USA Today Top 25 poll. OSU’s first matchup is scheduled to begin Friday at 1 p.m. against James Madison (17-1).
At this juncture in the season, the Buckeyes have faced only one ranked team, a loss to then-No. 3 LSU, so the weekend looks primed to be stuffed with a string of intense contests.
“This spring trip will probably be the toughest stretch of (nine) games we will play this year before postseason play,” said OSU coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly, looking ahead to both this weekend and next week’s five-game trip to San Diego.
Sizing up the opponents
James Madison is the Buckeyes’ highest-ranked opponent this weekend, moving from its preseason ranking of No. 19 to No. 10 after its successful start. The Dukes are 4-1 against other ranked teams, including a 3-2 win over No. 3 Auburn in February.
James Madison poses a threat from the mound because of the forceful duo of sophomore Megan Good and senior Jailyn Ford. Both pitchers have an ERA below 1.00, and Good has struck out 70 batters in her 13 appearances.
Schoenly is cognizant of the Dukes’ powerhouse pitching staff, which will help prepare OSU’s batters for the subsequent energetic efforts from the mound.
“We will be facing some of the toughest pitchers in the country over the next (nine) games, and it will be great to see who rises to the challenge,” she said.
Seven Dukes are hitting above .350, five of whom have started all 18 games. Senior Erica Field is off to another stellar season after breaking four program single-season and three career records last season. The catcher’s career batting average of .359 rivals OSU senior catcher Cammi Prantl’s .342, which is the top mark among Buckeye starters.
Georgetown (5-11) is OSU’s only unranked opponent in Arizona. As such, Schoenly said the Buckeyes are hoping to take advantage at the plate in Game 2 on Friday after likely having to grind out hits against James Madison’s pitching staff.
The Buckeye offense will face a struggling Hoya pitching staff, which has a combined ERA of 6.83. Georgetown’s three pitchers have also walked more than twice the number of batters they have struck out.
Senior Samantha Giovanniello leads the Hoyas with five home runs and 19 RBIs, which is just two short of her 2015 total.
The Buckeyes’ own offensive weakness continues to be stranding runners, something that could make a difference in a tight game.
“The few games we have lost, we had many baserunners during the game,” Schoenly said. “We just needed a timely hit here and there.”
OSU is scheduled to play its only game Saturday against No. 23 Nebraska, which is currently ranked second in the Big Ten, while the Buckeyes sit at fourth in the conference.
Cornhusker infielder M.J. Knighten leads the Big Ten in batting with 11 home runs and a .473 batting average. The junior was named Big Ten Player of the Week last month after a strong showing in Iowa. Also delivering at the plate for Nebraska (12-4) is senior outfielder Kiki Stokes with a .435 batting average, and senior infielder Alicia Armstrong with 15 RBIs.
Nebraska sits in the middle of the conference in pitching and is led by junior right-hander Cassidy McClure with 33 strikeouts. The right-hander and the three other pitchers for the Huskers have a combined ERA of 3.11.
The Scarlet and Gray finish their outing in Arizona with a matchup against Arizona State (18-5). The No. 19 Sun Devils have eight batters hitting over .350, half of whom have RBI totals in the double digits. Freshman first baseman Ulufa Leilua has a .903 slugging percentage, while senior infielder Nikki Girard has seven doubles and three homers.
OSU’s defense has been effective in getting out of tough situations with big hitters like Leilua at the plate, something Schoenly mentioned as a key to the Buckeyes’ success this weekend.
“We are looking for our pitchers to continue limiting teams to a few runs a game,” Schoenly said. “The key for our defense will be to limit the opponents’ big innings and for us to have timely hitting.”
Schoenly also praised sophomore third baseman Ashley Goodwin’s constant awareness of the field to stop opponents’ offenses from scoring.
After her leading performance in South Carolina, Prantl was named Big Ten Player of the Week and Louisville Slugger/National Fastpitch Coaches Association Player of the Week.
The senior hit .786 over five games, including a 4-for-4, three-RBI showing against Furman.
“I am extremely honored and humbled to be receiving this national award,” Prantl said in a press release. “This would not be possible without the support of my teammates and the coaching staff. Driving in runs is impossible without my teammates being on base.”
Prantl has 47 doubles in her career, only 11 away from the Buckeyes’ all-time record. She had 16 doubles during both her sophomore and junior seasons, so Prantl has a reasonable chance to set a new program mark.
The Buckeyes are scheduled to face San Diego State in a single game on March 16 before facing four opponents at the San Diego State Tournament from March 17 to 20. OSU’s matchup against the Aztecs is slated to begin at 9 p.m.