The difference between a 19-year-old and a 20-year-old might not seem very dramatic in most situations, but East Carolina coach Courtney Oliver has discovered that in college softball the gap between freshmen and sophomores is wide indeed.
With seven Pirates in their second year on the team, the sophomores make up the largest chunk of ECU’s roster, and four of those players — pitchers Erin Poepping and Whitney Sanford, shortstop Ashleigh Inae and centerfielder Tyler King — played in virtually every game as freshmen. With so many innings under the belt, that group and the team’s older upperclassmen form a core that prevailed in eight of the team’s first nine games.
“Now, I think that there’s just a confidence in all of them,” Oliver said of the sophomores. “Nothing really fazes them, there’s nothing new, they’re comfortable, and I think that’s the biggest part in them being able to step up and play like upperclassmen.”
After starting the season on an 8-1 tear, the Pirates hit a lull last weekend in the Pirate Invitational, the third straight tournament for which ECU served as hosts. With the weather truncating the tournament schedule, the Pirates only played two games and lost them both — a 1-0 result to Boston College and a 3-1 defeat at the hands of No. 18 James Madison.
They would have rather come out with victories, Poepping said, but the games still propelled the team forward as they prepare for this weekend’s Purple-Gold Invitational with visiting teams Massachusetts, Columbia and Winthrop.
“This weekend the outcome wasn’t what we wanted it to be, but honestly we’re not mad about our losses,” Poepping said. “We still went out there and competed, and you know the ball just didn’t go our way. We had really good hits and they made really good plays. We took care of the things we could control.”
“The game against JMU came down to a game of inches, and I think that’s softball,” Oliver said. “There was never a point where we felt we were outmatched, and we were constantly putting pressure on their All-American pitcher (Megan Good). I think, if anything, that gave us a little more confidence going out of it, even with the loss.”
Oliver echoed Poepping’s optimism, praising the team’s pitching acumen and offensive output so far, attributing part of their early success to the exceptional chemistry between the players. Both the sophomore pitcher and her coach said the same thing – that the softball Pirates love playing for each other.
Like the Pirate baseball squad, the softball team has used its top facility and the relatively mild climate in Greenville to stack its early schedule with opportunities to meet a variety of opponents on home field. This weekend true fans can ping-pong between Clark-LeClair Stadium and the ECU Softball Stadium and log some serious innings of their own.
On Friday, it’s softball versus Columbia at 3 p.m., baseball versus Utah at 4:30 p.m. and softball versus Winthrop at 5:30 p.m. On Saturday softball faces Columbia again at 3 p.m. and baseball plays Wright State at 4:30 p.m. Sunday brings a softball matchup against Winthrop at 11:30 a.m. and a baseball showdown against Western Carolina at 3:30 p.m.
And that’s not to mention the scheduled games between the visiting opponents coming to the two tournaments.
“We’re definitely excited to hopefully play a good tournament and have good weather,” said sophomore shortstop Ashleigh Inae, the Pirates’ leading batter with a batting average of .438 and a total of 14 hits and 12 runs through the first eleven games.
In preparation for this weekend’s competition, Inae said that the ECU players have been focusing on situational hitting and staying aggressive in the batter’s box. Inae has helped set the pace for her teammates with her hitting consistency, and after experiencing a weekend of defeat the Pirates are focused on doing everything they can to make sure those hits turn into runs.