After a season of resurgence in 2015, the Seton Hall softball team is prepared to take the field again as it opens up the 2016 campaign at the ULM Mardi Gras Classic. The Pirates will face Grambling State University on Friday, Feb. 12.
Last season, the Pirates finished third in the conference (25-28, 10-10), and eventually reached the Big East title game for the first time in 10 years with an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament on the line. Locked in a 5-5 tie in the fourth inning, top-seeded St. John’s eventually took the lead and was able to diminish any hopes Seton Hall had of capturing that elusive Big East crown.
Although they may have fallen just short of their goal, the team can no longer be an afterthought in the conference. The team improved its offensive production across the board a year ago. Under head coach Paige Smith, the Pirates have bought in to the mindset that they can and will have the opportunity to win that conference championship that was at the tip of their fingers last season.
“I think that my first year, they would laugh when I put Big East tournament on the schedule. And now it’s the expectation,” Smith said. “The biggest change between last year and this year is that we are expecting to win.”
Since Smith and her staff have taken over, the Pirates have gone from a program that won six Big East games in two years to one that has increased its conference win totals each year.
This year’s squad will have a different look after losing seven seniors. Smith said the plan is not to replace those players’ production, but to be a different team.
“We’re not looking to replace them, we’re looking to have freshman step into different roles.”
The 2016 roster will consist of seven freshmen. If there is any question as to what impact a freshman can make on this team, look no further than Alexis Walkden.
Walkden is entering her second season for the Hall. Last season as a freshman, Walkden rewrote the Seton Hall record books. She broke single-season school records for home runs (20) and RBIs (51) while capturing a multitude of awards and honors in the process, including Big East Freshman of the Year and First Team All-Big East. Walkden had a stellar 2015, but does not feel pressure to top her performance from a season ago.
“I think we did really good as a team and that’s what everyone is going to remember,” Walkden said.
In addition to Walkden, the Pirates are returning six players who made at least 30 starts last season, notably Yasmin Harrell, who tied for the conference lead in hits last season. Lauren Fischer will headline a pitching staff that is relatively inexperienced, but has the confidence of the players and coaches.
The team has a new captain as well. Senior Alex Rabbetts was voted by her teammates to fill the leadership void left from the departing senior class.
“It’s an honor. It shows they really look up to me and respect me and believe that I can lead them to take them to the end,” Rabbetts said. “It’s a great feeling, and I’m up for it.”
The Pirates are predicted to finish fourth in the Big East according to preseason polls. However, the focus of the team is remaining internal expectations, rather than external ones.
“We know really what we can do,” Rabbetts said. “Our mind-set is at the end and we don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
For the Pirates’ dream of securing a bid to the NCAA Tournament, they must perform well in conference play and ultimately win the Big East Tournament. The upcoming non-conference slate will essentially serve as a tune up for conference play, as only one Big East team, the winner of the tournament, will be get a ticket to the Big Dance this season. The key to make their dream a reality is utilizing the team’s versatility rather than committing to one style of play.
“We’re going to be a little bit of everything this year,” Smith said.
Ultimately, the Seton Hall softball program has its eye on the prize that seemed near-impossible just four years ago. Rabbetts puts it into five simple words.
“To win the last game.”
Matthew Zeigafuse can be reached at matthew.zeigafuse@stu- dent.shu.edu or on twitter @mattzeigafuse.