The Quakers kicked off their softball season at the Wolfpack Classic this past weekend.
The three-day tournament hosted by North Carolina State University also included James Madison University and East Tennessee State University. All three teams got the upper hand against Penn, who went 0-5 across the three days.
One key theme of the weekend for the Quakers was definitely growing pains.
The team is still adjusting from the retirement of coach Leslie King after she led the program for 19 seasons. King stands as the most successful coach in the program’s history with 354 wins — the fourth most in Ivy League softball history. After King announced her retirement on Jan. 10, Dani Gonzalez — who previously served as associate head coach — was announced as the interim head coach the same day.
“Coach [King] retiring was definitely a culture change for us in the sense that she did bring a lot of experience, a lot of holding us accountable in a way that coach Dani hadn’t done in the past,” senior right-handed pitcher/infielder Bella Fiorentino said. “Coach Dani now is stepping into that role. Between [assistant] coach Matt [Klampert] and coach Dani, they’re finding out their roles and we’re finding out our relationship with them and they’ve done an absolutely fantastic job at picking up the pieces they didn’t necessarily have last year.”
The difficulties imposed by the transition showed during their opening inning against James Madison on Friday. James Madison had a huge start with a home run on the first pitch. The Dukes went on to hit two more home runs in the game, which they won 7-5. They later beat Penn again by a score of 8-0 the second time the teams faced off the day after.
Throughout the weekend, Penn gave up a total of 12 home runs — six of which came against host NC State. The Quakers lost their matchup to the Wolfpack 15-6 on the first day of the tournament.
After the opening inning of that game, Penn and NC State were even with a run each. Senior catcher Sarah Schneider scored after junior infielder Sammy Fenton had a big hit to third base. Schneider previously had a double and stolen base earlier in the inning. The game remained close for the next inning, with neither team finding a true offensive rhythm.
NC State broke out in the bottom of the third, though. After an infield error allowed NC State to score a run, Taylor Ensley's home run created a spark that would help the team catch fire. With two other runners on base, the Wolfpack took a four-run lead of 5-1. Freshman right-handed pitcher Kelly Zybura took over for sophomore right-hander Rachel Riley for her collegiate pitching debut, but Zybura too would give up two runs before the inning ended. In the next inning, NC State recorded two home runs, causing Zybura and Riley to switch again in the circle; Riley efficiently shut down the Wolfpack offense with three straight outs.
Zybura, Riley, and Fiorentino were the Red and Blue's main pitching rotation throughout the tournament. Zybura and Riley — both underclassmen — had three and four strikeouts, respectively.
“You can’t just throw one pitcher for three games — people are going to make adjustments [and the] pitcher’s going to get tired,” Fiorentino said.
The Quakers tried to claw their way back during the NC State game, showing sparks of an offensive firepower. In the top of the fifth inning, Fiorentino had a huge two-run home run that flew over the centerfield wall. Fenton and junior outfielder Julia Mortimer later scored too, making their four runs in the fifth the highest amount of runs they would score in one inning throughout the weekend.
Despite Penn’s best efforts, NC State cruised to a 15-6 win.
Comeback efforts fell short for the Quakers — a recurring theme through their stay in Raleigh, N.C. In their first game against James Madison, Penn scored five unanswered runs throughout the bottoms of the fifth and sixth innings to bring them two runs shy of the lead. Similarly, in Penn’s first game against East Tennessee State on day two, the team scored to make it 2-1 in the third inning before ultimately falling 5-1. Grit was shown in the Red and Blue's final game on Sunday, but the team's efforts were still not enough and East Tennessee State secured a 7-3 victory.
“The biggest thing we took away is that we were competing — the amount of hits we put up, the amount of runs we put up. We were putting up offensive and defensive strides,” Fiorentino said.
Their 0-5 record does not have the Quakers giving up all hope for their season, though.
“We had a lot of hard hit balls, we stuck to our plan, and really executed — it just so happened that we hit every hard hit ball at someone,” Fiorentino said. “Eventually, those will fall. Eventually, things will break in our favor if we continue to make good adjustments, have quality at-bats, and hit the ball hard.”
As the Quakers’ season progresses, they hope to make quick adjustments to the new season and coaching staff. Their next test is at the Owl Classic held in Boca Raton, Fla. from Mar. 3-5 — another grueling five-game series.