The East Carolina University softball team now holds a four-game win streak following a dominant tournament sweep at the JMU Invitational this past weekend.
“We are starting to figure out our identity as a team,” ECU head coach Courtney Oliver said. “The team has been determined to get better every game.”
ECU had everything working all weekend. In its 9-2 win over Ohio University on Friday, the Pirates offense recorded 10 hits. Most came in timely situations too, as ECU went 5-for-12 with runners in scoring position and had four RBI with two-outs in the inning.
The Pirates took that performance and built on it in a 16-3, five-inning rout of Stony Brook University on Saturday. ECU recorded four home runs, and seven different players contributed with an RBI.
ECU finished the tournament by defeating James Madison University, the host team, 4-2 on Sunday. Day three was more about the pitching, as Pirates’ pitchers stranded 15 runners on base and kept JMU to 3-for-17 with runners in scoring position.
The JMU Invitational marked the Pirates’ turning point in the season, with them winning the last seven out of eight games. Prior to this weekend, the Pirates struggled in the Malihini Kipa Aloha Tournament in Hawaii. That tournament, the Pirates were outscored 25-8 and struggled to string together much offense, never scoring more than four runs in a game. Since then, ECU has scored at least four runs in each of its seven wins, and this weekend it outscored opponents 29-7.
The Pirates’ batting average was .329 and they hit seven home runs. Particularly hot players include redshirt sophomore infielder Tate McClellan, who has reached base safely in the last eight games, and freshman infielder Ashleigh Inae, who has a six game hitting streak.
“The biggest difference is the team is relaxed and confident,” Oliver said. “They’re not playing the game tentatively, they’re aggressive and competing hard every game.”
This change has translated to the mound as well. Pirates’ pitchers are still allowing opposing players to get on base often, but they’re now making big plays to get out of innings without giving up runs. ECU pitchers left 27 opposing runners on base this weekend, including the woes from JMU on the final day, highlighted by when JMU loaded the bases in three consecutive innings but couldn’t scratch across a single run.
Freshman pitcher Whitney Sanford has performed much better in the last few weeks as well. Going into the tournament, Sanford had a 3-7 record, picking up tough losses early in the season, but behind strong performances at JMU, she finished 2-0 on the weekend. Sanford came in to pitch when JMU had the bases loaded on Sunday, and calmly got a strikeout and a flyout to end the threat. Sanford believes the team’s performance speaks volumes about them.
“It says a lot about our team bouncing back from the losing streak,” Sanford said. “We never let that streak define who we are as a team. We are on a rise to where we want to be and we believe in it.”
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for ECU recently is its games against JMU, a 2017 NCAA regional team with a 19-7 record. ECU is 2-1 against them, with a loss during the losing streak, but back-to-back wins since. Sanford believes that beating a team of that caliber twice does a lot for ECU’s confidence moving forward. Sanford says it showed the team it can beat any ranked opponent when it plays the way it has been recently.
As far as the Pirates have come in the last 10 days, they believe they have further to go before they peak. Coach Oliver knows with conference play coming up, they need to continue to improve in every area in order to keep up this level of play. Oliver often says she does not want the team to peak in March, but would rather them not be playing its best this early. Luckily, with conference play starting this Friday, the team is closer to its best than it is to its worst.
“I think we are right there on our peak, I just think we have a little bit more to go, but we are making progress,” Sanford said. “You can definitely see the progress on the field. Our bats have came around greatly which was a huge obstacle to get to the peak. We are so close.”