In our 2023 softball preview episode of Scions of the Southland, head coach Aileen Morales stressed that winning and losing in NCAA softball largely depends on peformance in the pitching circle. For Tech, that’s meant riding Blake Neleman and Chandler Dennis for the last couple seasons. With that and some power at the plate with Emma Kauf and Tricia Awald, Tech softball played themselves into the NCAA Tournament in 2022, nearly taking down a stout Wisconsin team in the regionals.
Fast forward to this spring. The pitching core returned for 2023 (minus reliever Lexi Ray), but offensively questions still linger. The left side of the infield graduated between Awald and Bailee Zeitler, replaced by Grace Connelly and Abby Hughes. While they both are in the top five on the team in batting average (.293 and .340 respectively), Tech overall is hitting .273, down from their .284 mark last season. On the flip side, opponents are hitting about the exact same as they did last year on Tech pitching (.217).
Which brings me to the curious case of Blake Neleman. She undoubtedly remains Tech’s ace in the circle, but this year has come with dropoffs in a few select, but crucial categories.
Last year, her statline read: 2.51 ERA, 15-10, 43 appearances, 27 starts, 11 complete games, 184.1 IP, 137 hits, 85 runs, 66 ER, 92 walks, 220 K’s, 22 doubles, 0 triples, 26 HRs, .203 AVG against, 24 HBP. In other words, she was a workhorse that threw just under half of the innings Tech pitched all season.
This year, she remains the #1 starter, but with 25% fewer consistent reinforcements with Lexi Ray no longer on the team. Dennis and Voyles are still there, with Kinsey Norton serving as the de facto fourth pitcher if the situation calls for her. Jaidyn Studebaker even got her season debut today against Clemson, albeit in a run-rule situation (don’t find the replay of her first at-bat).
Looking deeper into Neleman’s stats so far, it’s not the same story as last year. Her strikeout rate has dropped from 33% to 25%, her HR rate went up from 3% to 7%, and doesn’t have the defense to blame with only four unearned runs to her name. Despite that, hitters have gone from hitting .203 against her to .194. She has a ton more innings to get through this year, and also against some tough opposition. About that...
Tech has dawn a very unfavorable conference schedule in the context of the ACC. According to HuskerGeek’s softball rankings, Tech sits 51st nationally, the 7th amongst ACC teams. Five of the six teams ahead of them are on Tech’s schedule (Clemson, Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke). The schedule has a rotating year-to-year pattern (four home, four road, four off), so it’s not necessarily Tech’s fault who they’re playing. Of the various combinations of ACC teams Tech could’ve played, they got a super short straw.
On top of that, Tech played four other quality teams near or ahead of them: #16 UGA, #25 Auburn, North Texas, and Charlotte. Wrap it all together, and Massey has us with the 28th hardest strength of schedule nationally, the 3rd toughest in the ACC behind Duke and UNC (both on Tech’s future schedule), but also the 35th hardest future schedule (Florida State and VT being the only ones ahead). The difficulty is locked in Expert mode no matter what play settings the team wants to use.
That consistently difficult schedule has resulted in a 16-15 record over 31 games, well behind the pace they were at after 31 games last season (22-9).
After a rough series against #5 Clemson (swept 3-0), one of two D1 teams with only one loss to their name, the current record feels like it’s where it should be. They have a notable win against Auburn that came with a Reese Hunter walk-off homer, but otherwise they’ve hit par. Sure a couple more wins here and there to pad the resume would be nice, but it’s not the end of the world at Mewborn yet.
Going forward, Massey gives Tech 11.17 expected wins to 8.83 expected losses. They also rank 47th in RPI. Tech might be a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament, but to really belong in the conversation, it will take a level of winning far better than what the Massey ratings expect.
All stats and rankings as of latest updates available on March 26, 2023