Halfway through the Big Ten season, IU softball finds itself lagging behind the conference’s best teams.
The Hoosiers sit in 10th place among the Big Ten’s 14 teams, and they have lost seven of their last nine conference games. The team’s recent slide can be attributed to a lack of offense.
Since exploding for 23 runs in a win against Rutgers on March 24, IU, 18-22 overall and 4-7 in conference, has failed to score more than six runs in a game. This has meant several impressive pitching performances from sophomores Tara Trainer and Emily Kirk have been for naught.
This weekend’s three-game series at No. 25 Ohio State, 24-10 overall and 8-3 in conference, offers IU the chance to reverse this trend and earn its first win against a ranked team. Ohio State will be the sixth ranked opponent IU has faced this season.
“We need to keep working hard,” IU freshman utility player Katie Lacefield said. “Making sure we’re coming out with high energy and intensity.”
Ohio State has momentum entering the series after winning 17 of its last 21 games. After posting a 31-win season in 2012, the Buckeyes have become a national softball powerhouse.
This power includes a trip to the NCAA Tournament last season, where the Buckeyes lost in the regionals.
Ohio State’s recent success has also left a mark on attendance at Buckeye Field, which has averaged more than 1,100 fans per game through seven home games this season. The team’s hitting is also strong at home in Columbus, Ohio.
The Buckeyes have posted a .374 batting average on their own turf and lead all Big Ten teams in batting average, runs, hits and home runs in conference play.
A big reason for this success is the dominance of sophomore infielder Lilli Piper at the plate. Piper’s .407 batting average, 39 RBI and 10 home runs make her one of the most feared hitters in the Big Ten. All this serves as a warning to Trainer and Kirk. The pair combined to allow two runs in 14 innings during Tuesday’s doubleheader split with Purdue.
“We’re always pretty comfortable behind both of them,” Lacefield said. “They threw great games on Tuesday.”
As well as Kirk and Trainer may throw, though, IU still needs its bats to wake up. After a brief batting order change during last weekend’s series at then-No. 7 Minnesota, IU returned to familiarity against Purdue.
Freshman utility player Gabbi Jenkins reclaimed her role as the team’s leadoff hitter to great effect. She recorded five hits during the two games, which gave her 35 for the season.The same couldn’t be said for the remainder of IU’s lineup. In particular, the Hoosier catchers struggled at the plate and in the field.
Freshman Bella Norton and junior Shayna Gamm have each been held without a hit since March 24, with both players’ averages near .200 for the season.
“We need to go back to the fundamentals,” Lacefield said. “Fundamental hitting, fundamental defense, just getting back into the feel of things and feeling good.”
The balanced four-pitcher rotation used by Ohio State may complicate things at the plate for IU.
All four pitchers with more than 10 appearances for Ohio State this season have an ERA lower than 3. Senior Shelby Hursh is the most impressive of them with a 9-4 record and six complete games.
By allowing the third-fewest runs in conference play, Ohio State has propelled itself into fourth place in the Big Ten standings.
Currently, IU would qualify for the 12-team Big Ten Tournament, although a large gap still exists between the Hoosiers and the Big Ten elite.
“I think we still have a lot of opportunities ahead of us,” Lacefield said. “We still have a lot of wins left in us.”