By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: Senior center fielder LeAnne Collins throws the ball back to the infield through senior second baseman Annie Pietanza (No. 22). Feb. 24. Emma Reider photo
Last season was not kind to the Salisbury University softball team. For a program that is a three-time NCAA Finalist under Head Coach Margie Knight, it was the first time in her 21 seasons at the helm that the Sea Gulls did not win a CAC Championship nor make the NCAA Tournament.
Salisbury had their lowest win percentage for a season under Knight too at a 21-19 overall record. 32 wins in 2008 was their lowest win total in a season previously.
Now in the 22nd season under Knight, last season left a deep SU softball roster hungry to return to the success they previously had. The shortcomings in 2017 have brought a reinvigorated 2018 Sea Gull squad.
“It’s a wonderful group of people,” Knight said. “They’ve all worked very hard. I think they’re working smartly. They’ve welcomed in a few new ideas that we’ve put in with the program that I think are gonna give us a little different look than we’ve had in the past.”
Knight says that she has been impressed with the extra work being put in during the preseason, seeing players at practice early taking extra swings and ground balls.
Aiding in the effort to rebound back to a conference title like in 2015 will be a team light on losses from last season. Only two seniors depart in outfielders Summer Paglianete and Caitlin Lake. A second-team all-conference player in her senior year, Lake averaged 0.342 at the plate, notching 96 career hits in 149 games.
Knight admits that there were some holes in the general blueprint last season, covered up as the team tried to make the best of their roster at the time.
“We had some people playing out of position just based on need,” Knight said. “This year I think we’ve filled those needs. Time will tell how we do. Are people hungry? Yeah.”
Now this season Salisbury has filled those needs through recruiting both in new freshmen and transfers, adding experience to an already veteran bunch in pursuit of a CAC Championship.
Back for her senior campaign is LeAnne Collins but in a different position this time. The NFCA First Team All-American is making the switch from right field to center field this season after Lake’s departure.
In Collins, Knight sees a triple-threat player that can bunt, slap and homer at the plate. The 2017 CAC Player of the Year led the Sea Gulls in runs scored, hits and batting average.
“I have all of these wonderful lesson plans and everything drawn up, and then I go ‘LeAnne, just do what you’re doing,’” Knight said. “She kind of does her own thing, and I mean that in a very positive way.”
On the right side of the infield, seniors line the base path in second baseman Annie Pietanza and first baseman Kristen Yanarella.
“[Pietanza] was pretty successful at second base last year, third-team All-American,” Knight said. “I think defensively she looks a lot better because she’s getting more reps. She didn’t go to second until six or eight games in [last season].”
While solidifying second base is critical, Pietanza brings her strength to the batter’s box, posting a 0.414 batting average alongside 53 hits last season. The Silver-Spring, Md. native also posted a team-leading 50 RBIs.
To Knight, Yanarella’s best impact might be her leadership within the infield.
“Kristen is certainly leading the infield,” Knight said. “She’s the one that’s played there the longest in her position. She looks great physically. She’s stronger. She’s hitting the ball really well. Defensively, she’s a lot quicker.”
Sophomore Emily Allen is back behind the plate catching after a strong freshman campaign in which the Ellicott City, Md.-native made second team all-conference. Knight sees new toughness and experience in her catcher.
The Sea Gulls return two pitchers that Allen will be familiar with from last season. The team’s earned run average took a jump from 1.39 in 2016 to 4.02 in 2017.
Junior Shannon Powell is called upon to lead the way in the circle as SU’s No. 1. In 13 games started, the Rockville, Md.-native led SU in ERA with a 2.77 mark. She came out in force during last Sunday’s first game vs. Keystone, pitching seven scoreless innings.
Joining Powell as a central force will be senior pitcher Rachel Milligan who will look to sharpen a rough start to her SU career in 2017, posting a 4.35 ERA.
Knight points to some changes Milligan has made to her pitching technique which should help her to shine. Fans have not seen the former Chesapeake College-transfer pitch yet this season since she was out for the opening weekend.
Coming to the pitching staff are two Delmarva natives in freshman Brea Bishop and sophomore Alexis Layton. Bishop comes from one of Knight’s old coaching stops, North Caroline High School (Md.), where the star pitcher led the Bulldogs to a state title.
Layton is familiar with the Sea Gulls already, having faced SU while she played for Washington College last season. From their high school successes, Knight sees a winning mentality in both pitchers
“Both of them bring something to our staff that we haven’t had for a while. Without giving away their pitches, I’ll just keep that in my back pocket till game day,” Knight said.
The two have already had an opportunity in the SU circle. Layton got the win for a 5 1/3 innings pitched and four-strikeout performance vs. TCNJ last Sunday. Bishop has appeared for a total of 6 2/3 innings through three appearances, only giving up one total run.
Two other transfers highlight the typical starting lineup. Junior Cat Ramagnano takes the right field spot after coming from Chesapeake College.
Known for her arm and speed, the Severna Park, Md.-native is a threat on the base paths. She has already put her throwing ability on display, throwing out runners with direct throws to third base and first base on a supposed outfield hit.
Sophomore Dakotah Fraley moves to NCAA Division III from Division II where she started at shortstop for Lincoln Memorial University. The Walkersville, Md.-native has impressed Knight with her school-first mentality alongside a leadership presence.
However, Fraley’s skills extend well into the field at shortstop alongside a powerful bat.
“She’s a natural at the position. She’s been playing it for so long that she just understands what is expected of her at the position,” SU assistant coach Paige Knussman said.
Fraley already started her SU career well, gaining nine hits in her first 15 at-bats to notch her CAC Player of the Week honors after the opening weekend. Also adding depth to the outfield is freshman Sami Mumford who played in all four games over the weekend.
With the many new players working into the fold, Knight can rely on a very experienced senior class to guide the way. Those seniors have impressed her both on the field and off it.
“They’re four women that are goal-oriented,” Knight said. “We have a nurse, a human resource person, a [physical therapist], and a marketing major.”
“So, we have people that all know where they’re headed. I think that’s really beneficial because they can give some guidance to our underclassmen.”
That guidance will be key to a Salisbury run back to the top of the CAC this season. Aiding that effort is a schedule that keeps SU in the friendly confines of Sea Gull Softball Stadium for the first 20 games.
The 2018 journey continues this upcoming weekend as the Sea Gulls (3-1) host the SU Softball Tournament which has Washington College (1-1) and Clarkson University visiting for Saturday and Sunday match-ups.
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