Productive nucleus returns for Lady Rams next softball season

Productive nucleus returns for Lady Rams next softball season
May 14
00:00 2015
(Above: Photo by Craig T. Greenlee- WSSU’s Mercedes Hargett slides into second base.)

Overall, Winston-Salem State University’s recently-concluded softball season was a struggle. It wasn’t until the next-to-last game that the Lady Rams assured themselves of finishing above the .500 mark. On the plus side, though, the ladies finished strong and won 12 of their last 17 games.

“There were ups and downs,” said Coach LaTaya Hilliard-Gray of WSSU, which finished the year at 23-22. “But with this team, it was never a question of talent. It was more about being consistent. They learned for themselves that in order to win a championship and advance to the regionals, they have to play as a unit in every game.”

With three seniors departing from this year’s team, Gray will have a viable cast of returning players for next season – all of whom will be sophomores or juniors. Of that group, four were either All-CIAA or CIAA All-Tournament picks.

“We have a very good nucleus coming back,” Gray said. “But when you begin to focus on the next season, you take the steps to build your team to be better than it was the year before.”

In her recruiting, Gray’s main point of emphasis is to build depth, especially at pitcher, catcher and the middle infield positions. This past season, the lack of depth hurt the Lady Rams over the course of a 45-game season.

To remedy that situation, Gray’s focus will also include signing multi-positional players who can compete for playing time immediately.

“We need dominant players who can fill different roles,” she said. “With added depth, we’ll have enough skilled players on hand, so that in case of injuries, there’s not a drop-off talent-wise.

You never plan for injuries. But you do prepare for the possibility. It’s a huge plus to have good players who are ready to step in and get the job done.”

The Lady Rams got stellar production from a trio of sophomores in 2015. All three delivered at the plate and as multi-positional players who did most of the pitching.

Mercedes Hargett produced all-star-caliber numbers as a vastly improved hitter. A year ago, she struggled mightily as a freshman with a .182 batting average. This spring, she firmly established herself as a long-ball threat on every swing. Hargett hit .411, led the CIAA in home runs (13) and was No. 2 in RBIs (40).

Chyna Riley (.395 batting average) is a converted right-handed hitter who has gotten comfortable swinging the bat from the left side. She ended the season with a conference-high 58 hits. As the season progressed, Riley got better as a slap-hitter to all fields. In the process, she’s learned to take advantage of her foot speed, which enables her turn drag bunts into base hits.

Katherine Zimmer had a stand-out season and was recognized for her performance as the recipient of the Most Improved Player Award. Zimmer hit .346 and drove in 30 runs, which was second on the team behind Hargett.

Three freshmen showed much promise. Utility player Samantha Gibbs (.359) played well in 19 games, but missed most of the last half of the season due to a knee injury. Melissa Carillo made a smooth transition as the starting catcher who committed just two errors in 212 total chances. Throughout the season, Carillo continued to improve as a disciplined hitter. Anna Marino, an outfielder, got better as she gained more experience.

“When you look at Melissa’s batting average (.271), it doesn’t reflect the progress she made,” said Gray. “She does an exceptional job of putting the ball in play and moving the runners. Anna, who came here as a right-handed hitter, had to get used to batting left-handed. It was a big adjustment, but over the final weeks, she played her best ball of the season.”

Winston-Salem State’s lack of depth had its biggest impact on the pitching staff. Entering the season, Gray had planned to use a four-pitcher rotation, which included three-time All-CIAA pick Monet Daly, Hargett, Riley and Zimmer. Those plans had to change. Due to ongoing knee and ankle ailments, there was a lot of uncertainty regarding Daly’s availability as a pitcher. So, Gray shortened the rotation to three, and Hargett got most of the work (pitched 148 2/3 innings of the staff total of 276 1/3 innings).

Hargett (10-13, 3.86 ERA) was tops in the conference with 152 strikeouts and she was second in pitching wins. Riley went 5-8 with a 3.83 ERA. Zimmer (5-0, 3.44 ERA) proved to be effective and efficient.

“Each pitcher brings something different,” said Gray. “Some bring speed, others have ball movement and pitch placement. We’re looking to get more help in that area. You can never have too many pitchers.”

As explosive as the Lady Rams proved to be with their bats, they showed tendencies to self-destruct with questionable base running. In games where WSSU had sizable leads, the mistakes didn’t cause any damage. That wasn’t the case in closely-contested games. Mental mistakes on the base paths were never more evident than in a 7-2 loss to eventual CIAA Tournament champ Saint Augustine’s during the final weekend of regular-season play.

Trailing 5-0 in the bottom half of the fifth inning, WSSU scored two runs with no outs. From there things went downhill. Two base runners were picked off, which put an end to what could’ve been a more productive inning.

In the sixth, WSSU had the bases loaded with one out, but came up empty. An infield fly ball was caught for the second out, but the runner didn’t get back to first base in time and was thrown out to complete the double play.

“Those base running situations are about being aware and being alert,” said Gray. “It’s to our advantage to make better use of our speed, so we can keep people on base and score runs. It’s a part of the game that we have to get better at.”

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Craig Greenlee

Craig Greenlee

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