In her sixth season with Ohio State, head softball coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly achieved a feat none of her predecessors could: four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament.
With an automatic berth that marks their 11th appearance in program history, the Buckeyes (34-16) travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, Wednesday where they await a first round Friday matchup with North Carolina (35-18).
For Schoenly, the team’s success can be attributed elsewhere.
“I think that this senior class that got them to four is no coincidence,” Schoenly said. “That group, they’ve played at the highest level their whole lives, so I’m not surprised that group was able to accomplish it.”
Ohio State’s heralded senior group includes shortstop Lilli Piper and second baseman Emily Clark, who were both named first-team All-Big Ten this season. Piper is No. 2 in the Big Ten with a .435 batting average, while Clark’s 54 RBIs are No. 3 in the conference. The pair account for 21 of Ohio State’s 53 season home runs.
However, North Carolina’s pitching staff has racked up 297 strikeouts this season, while Piper and Clark’s opponents have managed only 184.
“They have this big lefty that will throw the ball very hard,” Schoenly said. “I think [Brittany] Pickett is going to be a challenge for our hitters, but we’re working on it.”
Junior pitcher Pickett’s 210 strikeouts are tops in the ACC, and her 22 wins and 2.17 ERA are good for No. 4 and No. 6 in the conference respectively.
Clark said the Buckeye coaching staff has been preparing batters to modify their usual approach to accommodate for the Tar Heels’ pitching strengths.
“We have to shorten up our swings this week, just because I know their pitching staff throws pretty hard,” Clark said. “We’re going to have to go in not swinging for the fences and just being able to put the ball in play. More like line drives and not home runs.”
Ohio State’s 53 season home runs dwarf North Carolina’s 29: a total that sits the Tar Heels at No. 9 amid the 12 teams in their conference.
Home runs are not the only batting statistic in which the Buckeyes hold the edge. Ohio State bats .299, with 411 hits and a .484 slugging percentage, while North Carolina comes in at .295, 405 and .419 in the respective categories. However, the Tar Heels still outscore Ohio State, accumulating 276 runs to the Buckeyes’ 262.
Schoenly said North Carolina’s scoring comes not as a result of big swings in the batter’s box, but rather what they do once they get on base.
North Carolina leads the ACC with 123 stolen bases and nearly doubles the Buckeyes’ own 63 on the year.
“That’s their game and they’re not going to back down from that and so our goal is, one: to keep them off the bases, and two: if they’re on, throwing them out, being ready for them to steal because they will steal,” Schoenly said.
Senior outfielder Leah Murray exemplifies this style of play for the Tar Heels. Despite a batting average of .345 she has just 9 RBIs, but her team-best 26 stolen bases have enabled her to score a Tar Heel high 40 runs.
Ohio State senior pitcher Morgan Ray will factor heavily into the Buckeyes’ approach to counteract. Ray allows the third lowest opponent batting average in the Big Ten at .169, and has notched 173 strikeouts on the year.
However, Ray was credited with her eighth loss of the season in the Buckeyes’ 1-10 loss to a lower-seeded Wisconsin team in the Big Ten tournament last Friday. Schoenly said she was “super disappointed” in the loss, and the Buckeyes have now dropped two of their last four following an eight-game win streak in April.
The Tar Heels will also look to bounce back against the Buckeyes after a 0-8 loss to No. 5 Florida State in the ACC championship game.
For Piper and the rest of the seniors, there will be no shot at a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I’ve always had the, ‘There’s always next year. If it doesn’t go our way, we always have next year,’” Piper said. “Well, that’s not an option anymore. Just kind of leaving it all on the field, no regrets. Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability.”
Ohio State begins the first round against North Carolina at 11 a.m. Friday and will follow up Saturday with a matchup against either Tennessee or Longwood depending on the first game results.