Coming off of a terrible ending for the UConn softball team in 2019 after its NCAA dreams and the AAC Tournament washed away in a Houston rainstorm, the program turned over a new leaf in 2020. It brought in a new coaching staff and a leadership group energized to carry the program forward.
The one thing it wasn’t not afforded, was time. The Huskies were given just 21 games to show their stuff, and they took every opportunity to do so with a 16-5 record before Coronavirus ended it all. For the second year in a row, their season ended abruptly.
Now, the program will again be experiencing something new. Last year, it was the coaching staff. This year, the Huskies will have both a new stadium to play in and a new set of competition to occupy the fresh infield dirt (er, turf) with them. They, like most of the other UConn sports teams, are going back to the Big East.
Let’s take a look at what that may bring this program going forward. To help with this exercise I spoke to head coach Laura Valentino. She provided some information on each program and their coaching staffs.
Valentino: “In getting to know Scott [Hall] over at Butler, he’s really passionate about advocating for his program and pushing them forward to the top of the Big East and competing at a high level.”
The best pitching in the Big East lies in Indiana at Butler. In 2019, the Bulldogs led the Big East in ERA and strikeouts as a team. They allowed three runs or less in 16 of their 23 games, including five shutouts, which also led the league. They were the only school to strike out more than a batter per inning as a staff.
Hall led Butler to a 15-8 record last season, behind standout performances from Karli Ricketts, Lauren Fey and Alyssa Graves. Ricketts and Graves were the focal points of their dominant pitching staff, combining for a 2.41 ERA over 125 innings.
Valentino: “The great part about going to a new conference, and traveling to places like Creighton and Butler — that’s what makes the experience of being a college athlete fun. You get to go travel to new parts of the world and I’m excited to go out there and get to meet Brent [Vigness] and his ballclub.”
Creighton is a strong team all around. While Butler has made its mission to stifle as much offense as possible, Creighton made it theirs to produce as much as possible. Last year the team led the conference in average and were tied for second in on-base percentage. It wasn’t super strong in the power department but still hit enough to have the second-most in runs scored in the conference.
Like Butler, though, the Bluejays were no slouches in the circle, finishing second in team ERA and strikeouts.
Valentino: “They are probably one of the best programs in the Midwest for mid-major softball schools and you’ll always see them competing in the regionals.”
While they have a history of success, this past season DePaul was not particularly extraordinary. After going 35-16 in 2019, it finished 8-12 in their non-conference games, which put them in the middle of the Big East standings.
The Blue Demons had one of the worst pitching staffs in the conference, finishing second-to-last in team ERA, as well as an okay-but-not-great offense. They did, however, strikeout the least as a team by far in the conference, finishing with just 92 in 20 games. The next lowest was 111 by Providence.
Valentino: “Georgetown, we have a special connection with. Pat Conlan is the head coach, she was an All-American for UConn and I’ve really taken a lot of time to get to know her and she’s absolutely amazing. She’s been a mentor for me in my first year as a head coach and we played her in our first game this year.”
UConn kicked off their season against Conlan’s squad, picking up a 3-0 win. Georgetown struggled out of the gate, losing 11 of its first 12 games, but flipped a switch in late-February to finish out its season going 7-4 in their its last 11.
Offensively, the Hoyas really struggled throughout the year, scoring four runs or more just nine times in 23 games. They were shutout six times in that time.
In the Big East last season, there was essentially four tiers of pitching staffs. Butler was in their own at the top, Creighton was also by their lonesome in a distant second and then came schools like Georgetown who were clustered in a far-and-away third tier with Villanova. After that, there’s everyone else, who were much less than stellar.
Valentino: “I have a good relationship with Jill [Karwoski], I’ve seen her quite a bit in the Northeast. She was at Quinnipiac before Providence and I think she is trying to grow the program there. They just got a brand-new facility, all turf field and she’s passionate about growing a competitive program there and I think she’s doing a great job so far.”
In her first year with the Friars, Providence played the least amount of games in the league and also won the least. Despite the limited action, the Friars were the worst offensive team in the conference, they hit .208 collectively and scored just 66 runs in 17 games, and second-worst defensively as well.
Pitching-wise, they were the best team in that fourth tier mentioned earlier in terms of ERA. They struck out the fewest number of batters in the conference, but also walked the fewest as well.
Providence has a lot of room to grow, but it shouldn’t be chastised just yet since it hasn’t had enough of an opportunity to perform under their new head coach.
Valentino: “I know that they’re a ballclub that’s going to play hard, aggressive and very, very passionately. [Paige Smith] loves the game, I know her kids that she recruits. She really takes pride in recruiting players that love the game.”
This team simply loved to hit last year. They scored 10 or more runs in five of their 24 games this season, including a six-inning mercy of Elon early on in their season. The Pitates problem was their pitching staff, which finished with an ERA of nearly five. They scored 120 runs on the year, just seven behind the leading Villanova, but gave up a conference-leading 126 in return.
Once it tidies up their performance from the circle, Seton Hall will be just fine. It is losing a couple of their senior pitchers, though, so there will be some freshman faces toeing the rubber for it soon.
Valentino: “Bob [Guerriero] has done a great job the last few years especially… so another good team that I expect to see at the top of the conference.”
In his first season at the helm of St. John’s in 2019, Guerriero led it to a Big East regular season championship. Last year was not quite so fruitful in a shortened season, however, as it finished 8-15. The Red Storm struggled in most areas of the game but have a bright future ahead. Valentino pegged their recruiting class among the best in the conference, next to Villanova.
Valentino: “Ever since I’ve gotten to know the Big East coaches, I’ve really looked up to [Bridget Orchard] because of her success. She’s turned programs around, she’s competed in regionals and she’s made a name for herself in the Northeast. If I had to say, I think they will be our toughest competition in the Big East and I really expect that to be a big rivalry for us.”
The Wildcats have All-American Paige Rauch, who led or was near the top of the Big East in any offensive category you can think of and was third in the conference in ERA. Rauch is returning for her senior season alongside six other Villanova juniors, to go along with a rock-solid freshman recruiting class.
Villanova has quality in all phases of the game, they are definitely one to keep your eyes on going forward.