From her hiring in 2013 through last season’s conference slate, it was all about earning respect in the Big Ten.
In the eyes of Penn State softball coach Amanda Lehotak, that was something the Nittany Lions hadn’t done and needed to accomplish.
Now as she enters her fourth season at the helm, Lehotak’s team, which barely missed out on the 2016 NCAA tournament with a 30-24 record, finally feels established in the conference and can now look at making a dent nationally.
But it’s not going to be easy for Penn State — which lost seven seniors to graduation — to crack the postseason this go-around.
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“We’re very young, and youth always brings interesting things at times,” Lehotak said at Monday’s spring media day. “But we’re optimistic about the year.”
The Nittany Lions kick off their 2017 season with a weekend in Baton Rouge, La., where they’ll face No. 4 LSU, Oklahoma State and McNeese State. Penn State opens with McNeese State at 2:30 p.m. Friday and faces the host Tigers later that evening.
The opening few weekends should be revealing for the Nittany Lions.
We’re very young, and youth always brings interesting things at times. But we’re optimistic about the year.
Amanda Lehotak, Penn State softball coach
Penn State will need to press on without Macy Jones, Lexi Knief and Alyssa VanDerveer. Last season, Jones led the team with a .398 batting average, 116 total bases and a .699 slugging percentage; Knief had a .356 average and three triples; and VanDerveer led the team with 50 RBIs and tied Jones for most home runs (11).
All three were first-team All-Big Ten to close out their senior campaigns, leading Penn State to a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten.
“We’re going to have a completely new look on the field,” Lehotak said. “I think it’s an exciting look.”
The Nittany Lions return several key contributors, including senior Shelby Miller. One of four players to start all 54 games last season, the third baseman ranked second on the team in hits (60), third in doubles (11) and fourth in batting average (.345).
Miller figures to be a focal point of Penn State’s batting order, but Lehotak is confident in where the rest of the production will come from.
The coach identified three players to watch for the upcoming season: Toni Polk, Tori Dubois, and Mollie Sorenson. Polk (.280, 25 starts) and Dubois (.294, 35 starts) are coming off solid freshman campaigns, and Sorenson — Penn State’s “unsung hero” according to Lehotak — is a versatile junior who hit .299 in 2016.
“And then we’ll have a couple surprise kids who haven’t seen the field and who’ve been on the bubble,” the coach added.
In the circle, Penn State is set. Senior ace Marlaina Laubach (12-13, 3.34 ERA) and 6-foot-1 sophomore Madison Seifert (12-5, 4.40 ERA) remain the Nittany Lions’ one-two punch.
Freshman Madey Smith, sophomore Madison Shaffer and junior Jessica Cummings are all in-line to chip in innings throughout the season, too.
Lehotak declined to elaborate on her win-loss expectations this season. She said she’s more focused on what her Nittany Lions can control on a day-to-day basis.
But after 14-35 and 29-28 marks in 2014 and 2015, respectively, the coach has steadily improved the program since taking over, breeding a sense of belief and trust.
And with a season-opening weekend in Baton Rouge, the Nittany Lions have an early opportunity to keep building on that, despite all the uncertainties 2017 holds.
“Behind closed doors we’ve been talking about how we’ve been knocking on the door, but we haven’t really done anything yet,” Lehotak said. “We’re tired of being 65th or 70th in the RPI (rating percentage index). ... Are we motivated? Absolutely.”