SHU Softball Ready for New Era
Courtesy: Seton Hall Athletic Communications
Seton Hall University head softball coach Paige Smith is taking a unique approach to the 2013 season, her first at the helm of the Pirate softball program.
Smith comes to Seton Hall after recording five-straight winning seasons at Adelphi where she picked up 169 wins and led the Panthers to a pair of NCAA Tournament regional appearances.
Her roster is not particularly short on experience; Seton Hall returns 17 letterwinners from last year's team that went 21-32 overall and 3-19 in the BIG EAST, and of those returnees, five were regular positional starter and four registered at least 45 innings in the pitcher's circle.
The key for Smith during her first season will be maximizing the potential of a team that has the talent and depth to be successful but needs those attributes to translate to more wins on the field.
"I think we are a lot more intense, there are a lot more practice hours involved and good enough is not good enough," Smith said. "I think now the team realizes that our job as a coaching staff is to push them to places they can't take themselves."
That is where the unique approach to the season comes into play. A part of that motivational process does not include identifying long-term benchmarks, like say winning the BIG EAST Championship or qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Instead the philosophy at play is those goals and accomplishments will come if instead the focus is on all of the little things, each game, each practice and even each pitch.
It is a process oriented approach and one that Smith hopes will keep the team competitive every pitch and allow all 21 players on the roster to be contributors based on every scenario that comes up during the season.
The competition for playing time will be fierce and Smith expects to see players shuffle from position to position, from infield to outfield and make an impact whenever they are called on to step up. The end result should hopefully be the first step towards rebuilding Seton Hall into a softball power.
"I do believe we are going to turn some heads and surprise some people," Smith said. "I am pleasantly surprised by this team and I think the opposite is going to happen with teams who face us."
Four pitchers return from last year's team in senior Brooke Rickards, junior Jen Metzger, sophomore Danielle DeStaso and sophomore Casey Moses.
Metzger posted a team-best 5-2 record last season with a 2.30 earned run average but missed the second half of the season due to injury. DeStaso threw 131 innings, striking out 105 batters, while Moses posted a 2.76 ERA in 91.1 innings and Tull had a 3-6 record in 13 starts and over 80 innings.
But will one of those four be looked to initially as the team's ace? Not according to Smith, who expects the pitching competition to play out like every other position on the field.
"We're telling our girls that they are in a 56-game competition to see who has the ball at the end," Smith said. "I wouldn't rule out anybody at this moment. It has been fun to watch them develop in terms of confidence right now more than even skill."
This fall we had great performances by Jen Metzger and Danielle DeStaso, who are two very opposite style pitchers," Smith added. "After the break we've seen some huge improvements from Brooke Rickards and Casey Moses. Both of them have developed pitches that they haven't had in the past as well as some velocity."
A total of five players will vie for time behind the plate but three have been able to stand out initially, two of which are freshmen. Alex Rabbetts comes to Seton Hall from Corona, Calif., where she hit .386 with seven home runs and nine doubles as senior and Faith Laudano is an Islip, N.Y., native who was an All-state and All-County selection for Islip High School.
Sophomore Kaylyn Sanbower and junior Bridget Constantino are also expected to compete for playing time at catcher. Sanbower appeared in nine games and making one start during her freshman campaign in 2012 while Contantino hit .240 in 25 plate appearance with four runs and three RBI.
Whitney Jones played outfield as a freshman a year ago, but was a shortstop in high school and that experience in the infield has translated into solid play at first base where she is expected to be a regular contributor. She started 14 of her 38 games played last season, hitting .237 with nine runs scored.
Sophomore Jordan Moses played in six games last year will also be in the mix at first, along with Rabbetts when she is not behind the plate.
Switching up the defense on a regular basis will include taking a look at three different players at second base throughout the season, including senior Kirby Groves, junior Maria DeLuca and sophomore Sam DeMasi.
In 30 appearances last season, Groves hit .119 with three RBI and a pair of doubles. DeLuca played second a majority of the time as a sophomore, making 48 starts and 50 appearances when she hit .218. Like Jones, DeMasi will shift from outfield to infield and be a factor in the middle of the field.
"I expect there to be extreme competition for that second base spot," Smith said. "Kirby has some of the fastest hands I've ever seen. We like her at second base because she has the ability to do some great things, turn some double plays, and she also hit extremely well this fall."
"Maria played quite a bit there last year and she has really picked up the ideas we have given her, has made some plays and has had a hot bat," Smith added. "We've also moved Sam into the infield, which is another left handed bat, and if we need a lefty in the lineup she is a great option there."
Senior captain Brittany Hammer is the top returning offensive player from last year's team, hitting .300 as one of three players to start all 53 games for the Pirates, but the only one of those three to return this season.
She scored 34 runs, the sixth-highest single-season mark in program history, and displayed some power with four homers and eight doubles.
Backing her up will be freshman Yasmin Harrell. Harrell, a tremendous overall athlete, hit .521 with 19 stolen bases at Cheektowaga High School last season.
"Brittany has been the mainstay at shortstop, she is becoming a more vocal leader and has been awesome," Smith said. "Yasmin is a centerfielder by trade but makes some really nice instinct plays at shortstop. She is a great option as a backup."
Where Hammer has been the mainstay at shortstop it is junior Meredith Henze as the familiar face at third base, making 40 starts last year while hitting .257 with 12 RBI and three doubles. However, she is expected to miss the first half of the season due to injury.
It is likely freshman Jackie DiPietro and Groves will see time at third. DiPietro attended Hatboro High School in Horsham, Pa., where she was named First-Team All-Southeastern Conference and helped Hatboro earn a District One Championship in 2012.
"I always tell my teams there are three positions, infield, outfield and pitcher, and we teach the game that way," Smith said. "They are enjoying it, they get to learn other positions and it makes them better at the position they are at. We are going to put the best defense out there that allows us to keep our offense running."
A lot of Seton Hall's top outfielders also have the ability to move up and compete for playing time at infield positions, but a handful of those players will see a bulk of their workload come as they patrol one of the outfield positions, and of course who starts where and when will partially be dictated by venue, opponent and offensive consistency.
Harrell and sophomore Sara Haefeli enter the season as the Pirates' top centerfield options. Haefeli is described as an aggressive defender that should thrive in larger ballparks and she saw significant action as a freshman last season, making 20 starts and 35 appearances.
Senior Cashel Gaffey, sophomore Colltey Sheldon and DePietro will all compete for the corner outfield spots.
Smith had high praise for both Gaffey and Sheldon for the work they put in during the offseason to become more consistent offensive threats which. Gaffey started 37 games last season, hitting .169 with six RBI and four runs scored and Sheldon appeared in 42 games with 20 starts, finishing the season with 12 runs scored and four stolen bases.
"Cashel has really bought into some of our offensive strategies and is hitting the ball consistently," Smith said. "I can't tell you a player more than Colltey that has reinvented herself and bought into our system more. She's been working countless hours on improving her hitting."
Seton Hall gets its season started early as the Pirates will head down to the Hampton Inn Campbell Stampede Tournament on Feb. 8-9, hosted by Smith's alma mater Campbell University.
The initial foray into real competition will allow Smith to have an early evaluation period for the team before taking a weekend off and restarting the season with a trip to Jacksonville University on Feb. 22-24.
The Pirates travel quite a bit during the first month and a half of the season and face a difficult non-conference schedule that includes doubleheaders with Virginia and Maryland in addition to matchups with South Alabama, Texas Tech and San Diego State. But it all is a way to get ready for the rigors of the BIG EAST season which lurks toward the end of March.
"You only become the best by playing the best," Smith said. "If you look at our BIG EAST schedule we are facing off against six teams that made the BIG EAST Tournament last season. Playing a cakewalk schedule wouldn't be fair to our team. I think we did a good job of building it up in the right areas and it sets us up to be prepared for the BIG EAST."
That BIG EAST season starts with a home series against Notre Dame on Monday 23-24, followed closely by a three-game set at St. John's over Easter weekend and a midweek doubleheader at DePaul on April 3.
The Pirates host Pittsburgh April 13-14, USF on April 23, and wrap up their home slate with a series against Connecticut on April 27-28. The other conference road series include three games at Syracuse on April 20-21, and the conclusion of the regular season at Georgetown on May 4-5.
The 2013 BIG EAST Championship will be hosted by USF and held Thursday-Saturday, May 9-11, at the USF Softball Stadium in Tampa, Fla.