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Maryland softball struggled in 2017, but there are signs of hope

The Terps improved this year, despite what it says in the win-loss column.

Softball Sammi Silber/Testudo Times

Maryland softball had a turbulent 2017. The Terps had only one winning weekend in what turned out to be a long rebuilding season, which resulted in the worst record (11-39-1) program history. While dealing with the losing, head coach Julie Wright has focused on building a culture for the team with a slew of young talent.

Limited options in the circle hurt the Terps

Maryland’s primary struggle was finding pitching depth. The Terps relied heavily on seniors Madison Martin and Hannah Dewey, who pitched nearly every competitive inning. In the four games during the Maryland Invitational, Martin pitched over 20 innings, including a complete game shutout against St. John’s.

Not only does one of the two start every game, but they usually pitch in relief of each other, like against No. 1 Florida and No. 19 Michigan. Against the Wolverines, Maryland played a close game in the opener before Michigan pulled away late in the game. Martin pitched the complete game and kept it close against Megan Betsa, one of the top pitchers in the country. The next day, Dewey held the Wolverines scoreless until the seventh inning, when Wright decided to bring in Martin with the tying and winning runs on base. Martin was able to close out the game and seal the Terps’ biggest home win of the year.

Wright was ecstatic after that game, as the largest crowd in Maryland softball history watched the Terps beat their third ranked opponent of the season.

”We are trying to explain that we are not very far away,” she said after the win.

Unfortunately for the Terps, the celebration didn’t last. The team crumbled in the seventh in the series finale, and went 2-10 to finish the season.

The plan entering the season was for Martin and Dewey not to log so many innings. The graduation of Brenna Nation altered the pitching staff, as she decided to forego her final season of eligibility in order to graduate early. Last season, Nation pitched a staff-high 132 innings.

Due to Nation’s departure from the program, Maryland needed to find a third pitcher, even if only in a limited role. Freshman Lauren Graves was forced into action much more often than Wright planned.

“This was going to be a year where she was going to do a lot of learning,” Wright said. “She was supposed to have a year where we wouldn’t be handing her the ball.”

Offensive contributors were young and old

The top contributors on offense for the Terps were freshman Anna Kufta and senior Kristina Dillard. Kufta was a regular in the middle of the lineup and led the team in home runs and total bases. Dillard hit behind Kufta in the cleanup spot and led the team in doubles.

Kufta also stepped up for a team that was really struggling on defense, starting the season at third base before moving over to shortstop. Wright went out of her way after the Michigan win to praise Kufta’s transition. “That’s a catcher playing shortstop,” she said. “She sacrificed everything for this team.”

Wright decided to move Kufta so Dillard could stay behind the plate for her senior season. The captain has thrown out 17 runners this season compared to 16 runners last year. Next year, Kufta will return to her natural position.

Not only were Dillard and Kufta two of the top contributors for the Terps this season, but they also developed a bond that bodes well for the future of the program. Before the season, Wright decided that she would room some of the younger players with leadership players to help them out. Dillard was assigned to Kufta in the summer, and helped her with things like creating packing lists for the freshman or preparing her for how long the season is, in addition to helping her on the field.

The relationship has been mutually beneficial between the teammates. Dillard noted that the freshman is a reminder of the work ethic that the team needs.

“The coolest thing about that,” Wright said about the relationship between the two, “is that now she is going to have that responsibility next year.”

Wright’s emphasis on building a culture

The relationships between the older and younger teammates is only a part of the culture that Wright is trying to build at Maryland. She wants to build a culture that teaches accountability, but also has some fun. In her previous stops, Wright saw coaches make players run because their teammate messed up, but that is not the way she wants to build Maryland’s program. Wright wants players to be held accountable for their own actions.

A way Wright found to “punish” the players is to make them do ridiculous things like sing and dance in front of the team. For example, Kassidy Kross had to sing Adele and Skylynne Ellazar had to do a hula dance after doing things like leaving behind gear after practice.

Wright also introduced games like Wiffle Ball Wednesday and “gladiator ball,” a handball-like game, to bring some fun to a team that has struggled.

The results aren’t showing on the field yet, but progress is being built from within. Kufta is growing into a star, and she is surrounded by talented young hitters like freshman Amanda Brashear, who hit a team-high .304 this season.

The future of the program seems to be in good hands with Kufta front and center. After the Terps split a doubleheader on the road against Rutgers week, the freshmen went to the batting cages when they arrived home that Wednesday night and stayed even later than the coaches. That work ethic is a bright sign from the young Terps as the team hopes to be more competitive next season.