Expectations for improvement filled the minds of Maryland softball fans entering the 2018 season, as Julie Wright’s leash was likely shortening after two underwhelming years in 2016 and 2017. The Terps definitely improved this season, but the degree of that is up for debate. The most simple answer is that winning seven more games and making the Big Ten Tournament is a step, although small, in the right direction.
Let’s break down the season that was.
How it ended
Maryland earned a berth into the Big Ten Tournament, extending its spring beyond the regular season for the first time since 2015. However, the postseason only lasted one game as they fell in round one to Illinois, 5-3.
Illinois was the higher-seeded team in the matchup, and had swept Maryland in their series in April. The Terps kept this one close, though, holding a 3-1 lead early before letting Illinois storm back in the fifth and sixth innings.
It was sort of poetic that although the Terps fell to Illinois, their RBIs came only from seniors Skylynne Ellazar and Jacqui Pascual. But the rest of the bats couldn’t take advantage of the other opportunities in the game, especially in the top of the fourth, when Terps missed on extending their lead with the bases loaded and just one out. They held the lead in the sixth inning, but a string of hits from Illinois off Ryan Denhart gave them the lead and ended Maryland’s season.
The loss to Illinois marked the official end to the careers of Ellazar, Pascual and Destiney Henderson.
Ellazar’s senior season was by far her best in her career, leading the team in almost every hitting category. She hit .325 with a .528 slugging percentage and a .419 on-base percentage, while hitting eight home runs and 24 RBIs. She ended being named Second Team All-Big Ten, and left a legacy as one of the better players to have come through Maryland in recent years.
“Leaving a legacy and impact here is something that people are always gonna remember,” Ellazar said after playing her last series in College Park.
Pascual and Henderson also had very productive seasons in their final runs for the Terps, both having their best statistical years. Pascual and Henderson were third and fourth on the team in batting average, and both started in a majority of games this season.
In addition to the graduating class, this was also the final season for Mikayla Werahiko. Although she’s only a junior, the nature of her transition from New Zealand to College Park called for the NCAA to rule that she could only play this one season for the Terps. However, she will remain around the team to help out whomever may take her starting position and with acclimating international recruits like herself.
As for Werahiko’s play in 2018, it was a bit of a mixed bag. She started the season strong, but a midseason slump dropped her batting average to .204. She also had a mixture of good and bad on the diamond, making highlight reel plays such as the one below, but at the same time committing 19 errors on the season.
Diving grab!— Maryland Softball (@TerpsSoftball) April 11, 2018
Werahiko makes the throw from the dirt to save a hit in the 6th. pic.twitter.com/wD8fz3oDPE
Who’s coming back
Luckily for the Terps, a majority of their starting infield will be returning next season. After having a breakout season of sorts, Bridgette Nordberg will be coming back for her junior season next year with the notion that she will shoulder a good deal of the offensive load with Ellazar graduating. As a sophomore, she hit .272 with 20 RBIs in 54 games as the starting third basemen.
“Bridgette Nordberg is an outfielder, and she’s never played a lick of outfield here, and she’s learned first base last year and third base this year,” Wright said. “I’ve been impressed with her work ethic. She’s had a few bumps but she also comes up big.”
Anna Kufta will also be back again. Kufta regressed between her freshmen and sophomore seasons, with her batting average dropping from .277 in 2017 to .203 in 2018. She maintained her RBI numbers, but with Ellazar gone, there’s an opportunity for Kufta to assume a portion of that role.
The others returning for the Maryland infield include freshmen Taylor Wilson, Sammie Stefan and Hannah Eslick, and junior Bailey Boyd.
The returning cast for the Terps’ outfield is a bit thinner compared to the infield, but there’s still talent returning for the team. Despite regressing in 2018, Amanda Brashear will be back for her junior year in 2019 as a starting outfielder and key hitter. Her batting average dropped from .304 to .247 in 2018, but she is a definite to play a large role offensively.
Sophomore Kassidy Cross is also returning for her junior season after hitting .263 with a .351 on-base percentage. Freshmen Jojo McRae and Shelby Younkin are coming back as well, and figure to potentially play a larger role in 2019.
After last season, Maryland’s two go-to pitchers in Madison Martin and Hannah Dewey each graduated, leaving the status of the 2018 pitching staff in an ambiguous place. However, the same won’t be true heading into 2019, as Ryan Denhart and Sydney Golden are both expected to be back to lead pitching attack.
Despite only being a freshman in 2018, Denhart was called upon to carry a significant portion of the pitching load. She answered the call for the most part, starting 27 of the 43 games she appeared in while maintaining a 3.81 ERA. Her final win-loss record was 10-20, although that was largely influenced by the team’s general lack of offensive production. Denhart appears to have a bright future ahead of her with the program, and she’ll be one of Maryland’s most important players going forward.
Golden had her ups and downs during her first season at Maryland after transferring from Cal State Fullerton. She finished with a 5-18 record and a 5.03 ERA, while also throwing two shutouts over the course of the season. Golden will have the opportunity to build on the positives from this year and put together a solid senior season in 2019.
Also returning for Maryland’s pitching staff will be junior Sami Main and sophomore Lauren Graves. The two were minimally involved in 2018, but their roles in 2019 could swing towards more involvement.
Wrapping it up
With a combined record of 23-79-1 from 2016 and 2017, there was a reasonable cause for concern surrounding Julie Wright’s future. While some may believe that no real improvement was made this season, it has to be taken into account that there were still hardly any expectations other than a hope for improvement compared to seasons past.
While the team only won seven more games, the bridge to the Big Ten tournament was an important one crossed and a definitive step in the right direction. However, Wright will need to keep the Terps’ trajectory positive in 2019. If she reaches her fourth season as head coach and more steps aren’t made towards winning consistently in the Big Ten and reaching the NCAA Tournament, then the seat will really begin to heat up.
This story has been updated to reflect Werahiko’s junior season being her last in College Park.