Blue Demons Back Among Finest in the Nation
May 14, 2014
CHICAGO - Back where we belong.
That's the sentiment of DePaul's softball team as it heads to Lexington, Ky. for the NCAA Regional that opens at 4 p.m. Friday with a showdown against No. 25 James Madison.
At this time last year, the Blue Demons were sitting at home after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. We're talking about a traditional softball power that has competed in 18 NCAA tournaments since 1994 with four appearances in the Women's College World Series.
By winning the BIG EAST Conference tournament last Saturday, DePaul secured the automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
"This is where we belong," said BIG EAST Player of the Year Mary Connolly. "We had to show people that last year was a fluke. We have been playing well all year long. We have a lot of talent, and it's nice to see us put it together at the right time. We're on a roll going into the regional.
"Last year we had some injuries to key players and didn't have the depth to overcome it. We have a lot more depth this year and overcame an injury to Micah Fitzgerald. Every person in the lineup and everyone on our team can be a game-changer for us."
That would certainly include senior ace Kirsten Verdun, the BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year.
"It feels great to be back in the NCAA tournament," Verdun said. "But we know this is not our endgame. We're not satisfied just making it to the tournament.
"This season, we are all pulling in the right direction. Everyone is genuinely happy for everyone else and there are no jealousies or stuff like that.
"The camaraderie is as good as it's been in my four years. Everyone knows their roles and is willing to step up in a key situation."
Connolly (.407 batting average, 13 home runs, 41 RBIs), All-BIG EAST Second Team choice Allie Braden (.356, 28 RBIs) and BIG EAST Rookie of the Year Dylan Christensen (.346, 36 RBIs) head up an offense that is batting .310 as a team, has outscored opponents 298-133 and holds a 44-13 advantage in home runs.
They are backed up by BIG EAST Pitcher of the Year Verdun (.321, six homers), Morgan Maize (.314, 28 RBIs), Ali Lenti (.314), Nicole Pihl (.293, 24 RBIs) and All-BIG EAST First Team selection Megan Coronado (27 RBIs). Staci Bonezek was All-BIG EAST Second Team and Fitzgerald (.345) is back to add more pop and speed to the team.
"I have to give our assistant coaches a lot of credit for the change in culture from last season" said DePaul coach Eugene Lenti who recorded his 1,200th win this season. "They have found ways to connect with our players and to inspire them. The players listen to what they present in all facets of the game.
"Our defense is better this season, and so is our pitching. We're hitting better and scoring more runs. We scored two runs at the BIG EAST tournament last year and scored 12 runs this year.
"It's not a case where we're relying on one or two hitters for big hits and RBIs. We've had timely hitting up and down the lineup. We've had 11 different players hit a home run. Lots of different kids have collected RBIs and scored runs. Our offense has come from everywhere."
Verdun will enter the pitching circle on Friday against James Madison (44-13) with a record of 30-5, a 1.72 earned-run average and 265 strikeouts in 220 innings. Opponents have hit just .193 against her.
"This is the best pitching record of my career, and I'm thankful to the team for that," Verdun said. "I pitch to contact and trust my teammates behind me. Offensively, we've been scoring runs early and that plays a huge role in my pitching."
DePaul (41-9) was at its best in a 4-2 victory over No. 23 Notre Dame last month at Cacciatore Stadium.
"That was a key point in our season," Lenti said. "We played very well in every facet of the game against one of the best teams in the country. Verdun and our defense did a very good job against one of the best hitting teams in the nation.
"It gave our team a big boost of confidence, and we beat a good pitcher who has had success against us in the past. Hannah Penna came through with a pinch-hit, three-run homer in the sixth inning, and winning that game said a lot about our players' confidence."
That was part of a 20-game winning streak that had the Blue Demons surging into the final BIG EAST weekend where they were upset by Butler. James Madison comes to Lexington riding a 15-game winning streak, and the 44 wins is a school record.
The Dukes edged DePaul 3-1 on Feb. 23 at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla. DePaul's regional opponent is batting .275 as a team and has outscored the opposition 256-113.
The offense is led by Caitlin Sandy (.337, seven home runs, 31 RBIs), Erica Field (.314, 36 RBIs), Jailyn Ford (nine homers, 28 RBIs) and Taylor Newton (seven homers, 31 RBIs). The Dukes boast a pair of 20-game winners in Ford (23-6, 1.24 ERA) and Heather Kiefer (20-7, 2.02 ERA).
"It all starts from the mound," Lenti said. "The key to success in the postseason is great pitching combined with a solid defense and timely hitting. Teams that do that can get on a roll.
"We know we have as good a pitcher as anyone in the country. Our defense is solid and we have enough different ways to score runs. We're dangerous one through nine in our batting order, and the kids off the bench come in and have success.
"It's a really solid regional with three teams with over 40 wins and three conference champions. Everyone has a talented pitcher and a potent offense. Kentucky is seeded No. 14 in the NCAA tournament and is the favorite going in."
Kentucky (44-15) opens against Ohio (32-24) in the double-elimination regional. The Wildcats are hitting .267 as a team and have outscored opponents 275-171. They have a dominating 64-35 advantage in home runs.
The offense features Nikki Sagermann (13 home runs, 46 RBIs), Lauren Cumbess (.320, eight homers, 34 RBIs), Griffin Joiner (nine homers, 30 RBIs) and Emily Gaines (.333, six homers, 35 RBIs). Wildcat ace Kelly Nunley is 24-7 with a 2.07 ERA.
Kentucky finished second at its league tournament, and the Southeastern Conference boasts the top three teams (Florida, Georgia, Alabama) in the NCAA's RPI. The SEC is arguably the nation's top conference with eight teams in the RPI's top 20. DePaul comes into the NCAA tournament with a 28 RPI and James Madison is 23.
Connolly is ready for the challenge.
"All the teams in the Lexington regional can score runs," Connolly said. "Eug (Lenti) always says when we get punched in the face, you have to punch back. That's what we're going to do in Lexington.
"We've got a team capable of winning the regional. We just want to get there and show people how we play DePaul softball."
That would be the feisty, aggressive style of play inspired by a Hall of Fame coach.
"We don't coast or get comfortable when we win," Connolly said. "Eug tells us to always be hungry and play like it's your last game.
"Eug sets the bar high. I've been with him for three years and I know what he's all about. And yet, he never ceases to amaze me."