Under first year head coach Courtney Deifel, the win-loss record of Maryland's 2015 softball team has had an eye-popping improvement over the 2014 season. With 11 games remaining in the season, the Terrapins have more than doubled the previous season's total wins and they have accomplished that with a roster that is little changed from 2014.
Deifel has infused new energy and a positive attitude into what had been a moribund group. However, energy and attitude can only carry a team a limited distance and the Illinois Fighting Illini came to college Park and exposed and exploited every one of Maryland's weaknesses sweeping the three game series.
Entering the season, Deifel knew that pitching depth would be an issue particularly with a season ending injury to Madison Martin and another that required Brenna Nation to sit out nearly all of the first half of the schedule. Senior Kaitlyn 'KK' Schmeiser has accounted for 58 percent of Maryland's innings pitched through the first 42 games and has, of late, begun to show the effects of that burden showing some inconsistency perhaps a result of weariness from her arm.
Although she was very effective in Sunday's 5-4 loss, in both Friday's 7-3 and Saturday's 14-8 losses, Schmeiser yielded a pair of home runs. Over her last several appearances, her ERA has crept from under three runs per game to nearly 3.25 Neither she nor the Terps' other pitchers have, frankly, been aided by a rather porous defense that is committing close to two errors per game.
The charged errors are often compounded by other fundamental defensive mistakes - such as not covering bases or not properly executing rundowns - that at best extend innings and at worst allow runs to score but which don't appear in the score book as errors. In a game that has recently been redesigned to generate more offense, these mental mistakes are sometimes more costly than the physical miscues.
Deifel and her staff have rejuvenated Maryland's offense turning the Terps into a free swinging bunch that scores three runs per game more in 2015 than they did in 2014 and and has blasted 53 home runs in 42 games compared to 20 for all of the previous season and just 42 the season before that. In some games, this offensive prowess has masked some of those other deficiencies.
However, when those bats are relatively silenced as they were by Illinois' Jade Vecvanags Friday, and Sunday or when the Terps pitchers fail to reasonably contain the opposing offense, the result ends in being swept at home by a very average Illinois squad.
Friday - Illinois 7 Maryland3
Friday's game belonged in large part to Vecvanags who consistently prevented Maryland from picking up key hits. The Terps put two runners on in each of the first two innings and had a runner on third with one out after Lindsey Schmeiser extended her hitting streak to 17 games with a lead off double but they failed to push a run across.
On the mound, Schmeiser kept the Illini in check early conceding just a solo home run to Carly Thomas leading off the second. The visitors added two more in each of the last three three innings while the Terrapins scratched out a single run in their last three at bats but never really threatened to overtake the Illini.
Saturday - Illinois 14 Maryland 8
The Terps got started early Saturday jumping out to a 4-1 lead after two innings. Illinois got even in the top of the third on a three run homer by Nicole Evans - the first of two on the day for the left fielder. Once their bats got rolling, Illinois simply feasted on Maryland pitching scoring in both the fourth and fifth frames.
Illinois led 7-4 as the Terps came to bat in the bottom of the fifth. Maryland scored four times in an inning that featured back to back home runs - a two run blast by Juli Strange followed by Kylie Datil's long fly that just cleared the fence in left center. The Terps had edged in front 8-7 but that would be all they would muster.
Maryland committed two errors in the top of the sixth opening the floodgates for four more Illinois runs that put the Illini up for good. Unlike Illinois, which responded immediately to Maryland's big inning, the Terrapins went meekly in the bottom of the inning failing to get the ball out of the infield while allowing Vacvanags, who had come on in relief in the fifth, to work a three pitch inning. Illinois tacked on three more in the top of the seventh and Maryland didn't threaten allowing the Illini to wrap up the series.
Sunday - Illinois 5 Maryland 4
After committing a combined seven errors in the first two games of the series, Maryland played flawlessly in the field Sunday afternoon perhaps keyed by Lindsey Schmeiser's return to shortstop. However, Illinois' hitters continued playing tee ball against Maryland pitching. The Illini, who had scored in their final six at bats Saturday including multiple runs in five of those innings scored four times in their first at bat Sunday putting up four straight hits against starter Brenna Nation who failed to get an out.
Hannah Dewey, who had struggled mightily on Saturday, recovered nicely on Sunday and gave the Terps three and two thirds solid innings giving up just a single run in the third. Meanwhile, the Terps began to scratch back beginning with Lu Schmeiser's third inning home run that extended the junior's hitting streak to 19 straight games.
The Terps added a second run in the fifth on Schmeiser's sacrifice fly but also left two runners on base. They came to the plate trailing by three in their last at bat. Kylie Datil led off the inning with a single to center. After Schmeiser was hit by a pitch, Hannah Dewey drove in both runners on a double to left center.
In each of the two previous series, Maryland short circuited rallies with base running errors that, if they didn't cost them a win certainly deprived them of a chance to win. With one out, Emma Mires, pinch running for Dewey, broke for third on Corey Schwartz's grounder to short. Though Schwartz reached, Illinois threw behind Mires and got the lead runner.
The play became critical when Erin Pronobis looped a single into short right field. The right fielder, respecting the senior's power, was playing very deep. Had Mires been on second, she would have easily scored the tying run. However, the best the Terps could get out of the situation was to put runners on the corners with two out for Shannon Bustillos.
The hot hitting catcher fell behind in the count 0-2 and fouled off six or eight pitches working the count full before striking out to end the game.With the loss, Maryland falls to 23-19 on the season and 5-7 in Big Ten play.
The Terps return to the field on Friday when they host the Penn State Nittany Lions for a three game series. First pitch is scheduled for 6:00 pm.