As of this past weekend, the 2016 college softball season is underway. Maryland began the year by going 2-3 at the Kajikawa Classic, and on Friday the Terps will return to action in the Georgia State tournament. This season figures to serve as the first step in a new direction. Maryland is playing for a new head coach against a still-unfamiliar Big Ten conference. The last of the Laura Watten recruits will soon be gone, while the first commitments to Julie Wright are years away from arriving on campus.
But Wright and her staff aren’t afraid to make changes right away. The former Idaho State coach wants to bring an aggressive identity to the Terps, even though she hails the current group as "not the fastest." The 2016 Terps also have captains, a feature that was missing from teams of the past. Over the winter, the players named senior third baseman Juli Strange overall team captain. They also chose junior outfielder Sarah Calta, senior second baseman Corey Schwartz and junior catcher Kristina Dillard to lead their respective position groups.
It was unlikely that any of these players would become a college captain. None of them were heavily recruited in high school, and several had to wait longer than most to commit somewhere. The softball recruiting process starts incredibly early, with players getting early looks in 8th and 9th grade and choosing a school by 10th. Dillard, who committed to Louisville as a senior, was playing with girls who had long known their next team.
"There was a lot of pressure, especially with the girls I was playing with, everyone was committed," Dillard said about being a late recruit. "You’re just looking at yourself like ‘alright, when’s my turn?’ It was nerve-wracking, and there was a lot of character-building within that, but it was definitely a process where I learned a lot about myself."
Calta played for a relatively small travel team (called the Maryland Black Ice) that didn’t get a ton of exposure, so she had to pitch herself to schools, rather than the other way around. However, she knew she wanted to be a Terp. Her father, Keith, played football and baseball at Maryland. Schwartz was a multi-sport star getting recruited to play soccer before deciding as a high school sophomore to focus her attention on the diamond. Strange’s process was more ordinary (ironic given her last name), but like Calta, she was reaching out to programs. Some got back to her, while some blew her off. She’s used that as motivation, especially when suiting up against those very teams.
"When you play a school that you wanted to go to and blatantly passed you up, there’s that aspect of trying to prove people wrong for sure," she said, although she wouldn’t disclose any names.
Strange and Schwartz stepped right in to become regular starters as freshmen in 2013, and have been staples in the infield ever since. The two entered 2016 with a combined 271 starts, including 54 each last season. Schwartz had a breakout junior season at the plate, leading the Terps with 15 home runs and 45 runs batted in. She also put up a .320/.407/.641 slash line, far above and beyond anything she had done in the past. However, she doesn’t see last year as a standard to meet in 2016.
"I don’t put it in my mind that I need to top anything, because that just causes pressure, and I don’t think a lot of athletes do well under pressure," she said.
Strange, meanwhile, hit .264 and finished the season on a hot streak at the plate. Based on both players’ experience, it’s no surprise they were named captains by their teammates. Calta and Dillard, on the other hand, are surprises in a way. Calta only started 18 games last spring, but will take over the everyday left field slot formerly occupied by Erin Pronibis. Dillard was a Louisville Cardinal each of the past two seasons before transferring to Maryland in the summer. It wasn’t long before she gained the trust of teammates and cultivated strong relationships with the rest of the bullpen.
"Coming in here, I just wanted to be myself," she said. "Because I was new, it was a goal of mine to get to know everybody, know what kind of player they are, how they react in certain situations. I knew I wanted to make an impact on my teammates and be a light to them."
The Terps played a 6-game exhibition season in the fall, which brought about positive and negative consequences. Calta erupted for a .647 average and 5 triples, but Strange suffered a torn ACL in the last game that will keep her out through the spring. She has been granted a medical redshirt and will play her senior season in 2017. In the meantime, her role as the overall team captain should mirror that of an assistant coach.
"My role is kind of special because I do get to sit back and watch everybody. I don’t have to be focused on myself," she said. "When we’re in practice, in games, my focus is 100 percent on my teammates. I can support them in a manner that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to if I was on the field."
The other three captains lead their respective position groups. During practice, normally after full-team defense, these groups will split off and work on specific aspects of the game (e.g. catchers blocking balls). As a result, players develop a closer relationship with those they’ll be standing next to.
"There’s not that many [outfielders], so it allows us to get to know each other and communicate so that we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which is a really big deal when you have to hold people accountable," Calta said.
Of course, the best captains are leaders off the field, as well. Wright holds these players to high standards, and they have embraced the increased responsibility from years past.
"She demands a lot more from us than any of the previous coaching staffs had," Strange said. "She demands us to be good in every single phase of what a student-athlete is required to do: being a student, being a good person on and off the field, being a role model to little kids. Every single aspect of being a student athlete, we’re held to the highest standard of. I think it’s been a good change for us. I know I’ve grown as a person because of it just in the last few months."
Captains hold some degree of authority status over other players, as well. Their job is to promote a healthy atmosphere in the locker room, dissolving whatever conflicts arise. They command respect, which is much easier to dole out if they set a good example.
"We have to make sure that the decisions we’re making off the field are right for the team, and decisions we would want the rest of our teammates to make," Calta added. "You can’t preach what you’re not going to practice."
The four Terrapin captains have also grown close with one another. They all have different personalities, but recently discovered how those differences can benefit the team. Perhaps it’s only fitting that these players are the catalysts for a Maryland team that hopes to carry itself like a confident underdog. The Terps showed what they could be against Oregon, and Wright wants that attitude to take hold all season.
"Just seeing how [Coach Wright] is operating everything, it scares me that I could have missed out on this," Dillard said. "This is where I want to be."