Time to get offensive: Bulldogs eager to buck trend of struggling at state tournament
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The Notre Dame softball team has averaged 9.4 runs per game, but that trend is unlikely to continue at the state tournament this weekend.
Notre Dame coach Jeff Graviett knows his team will go against pitchers similar to Bulldogs ace Lauren Reinagel who have 20 or more wins and ERAs near 0.14.
"We're expecting [to face] a pitcher a lot like our own," Graviett said.
It has been difficult for the Bulldogs to score during recent state final four appearances, pushing across just four runs in their past three state semifinal games combined.
Notre Dame entered last year's semifinal game against Webb City with a .405 team batting average through districts and having scored at least 10 runs in 10 of 28 ballgames.
But the Bulldogs' offense was shut out 3-0 by Webb City.
Notre Dame enters this year's final four with similar offensive statistics — a .418 team average and having scored at least 10 runs in 15 of 27 games.
Will this year be any different for the Bulldogs offensively?
Can they produce enough offense to give their talented hurler enough run support?
Notre Dame (27-0) will find out the answer when it plays a Class 3 semifinal contest against Kirksville (24-4) on Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Heritage Park in St. Joseph.
"As you get to this level, [pitchers] are better," Graviett said. "It changes everything."
Graviett and his Notre Dame players said they are more prepared to score runs because they have a different type of lineup, featuring more speed at the top and a strong mix of power and slap hitters. Graviett and his players also said they are more prepared because they faced better pitching during the summer and fall after scheduling games against teams with tougher pitchers. They also have had fathers of players throw batting practice to help.
Being able to produce offensively is a concern for all teams at the state tournament.
Entering last year's state final four, 15 of the 16 participating schools from Class 1 through Class 4, had a team batting average higher than .300. Six of the teams were hitting better than .350, and three teams had a team average better than .400.
But 58 runs were scored in the 16 games for an average of 3.6 runs scored per game.
In the past five state tournaments, 68 games have been played. In only one game has a team scored 10 runs, and it ended early because of the 10-run mercy rule. Meanwhile, 15 games have gone into extra innings at the state tournament since 2003.
Graviett said the addition of slap hitter Paris Burger, who has hit second after being out with an ACL injury last year, and No. 6 hitter Mallory Siebert, who is hitting .542 after just three at-bats last regular season, will help his team deal with better pitching.
"It's more a collegiate-type offense where you've got the slappers and the speed to cause a little havoc, and power in the middle and power in the back end of the offense," Graviett said. "So I think that's made a huge difference for us."
Leadoff hitter Erika Reinagel said this year's lineup puts more pressure on opposing defenses.
"Since we have many different things as in bunting, slapping, hitting, I just think it kind of shakes up the defense a lot," she said.
Notre Dame had just two hits while striking out 15 times against Webb City pitcher Nicole Hudson last year.
Webb City moved up to Class 4, so the Bulldogs don't have to worry about Hudson this weekend.
Graviett said his offense must score early, preferably in the first inning, as most pitchers at state will settle into games as contests progress.
Speedy Erika Reinagel typically attempts to bunt for base hits, and Burger typically sacrifices Reinagel to second base or tries for a slap hit.
Graviett said his team would not vary from this type of approach even against stronger defenses more capable of defending against the bunt. He added that his offense must adapt well to opposing defenses, which means slapping when the defense is in anticipating the bunt and vice versa.
"There hasn't been a team all year long really able to take the bunt away from Erika," Graviett said. "There's times when she lays down a perfect bunt and there's no way to defend it. ... There's a spot out there in the middle if you put it down there you can't throw her out with her speed. She will continue to do what she's got to do to get on."
Graviett said the biggest change in his offense's approach is that he might ask the rest of the lineup, including his power hitters, to do more sacrificing and squeezing. He said he lets most of his hitters swing away in the regular season because they face weaker local pitching, but he knows the importance of posting one run at the state tournament.
"We've been talking to them from day one of districts that we'll squeeze," Graviett said. "We've got to get a run across in the first. We've got to be the first team to score because I just believe that with the pitcher we have, we need to get on top."
Graviett already asked cleanup hitter Alexis Ralls to bunt with Erika Reinagel at third base against Affton in the first inning of Saturday's quarterfinal game.
"We're going to do whatever we can to get the run across," Burger said.
Graviett said his team would continue to be aggressive when running the basepaths. Graviett likes to put pressure on defenses because when high school athletes rush, they often make mistakes. Graviett's philosophy is that aggressive baserunning is more important against top pitching.
Graviett knew even before last year's state tournament that his team needed to face better pitching.
His plan was to put a few more games on the 2008 schedule against teams with top pitchers. He added a regular-season game against Affton so his players could face ace pitcher Kourtney VonBehren.
Notre Dame players also faced strong pitching in the Seckman tournament and during the summer while playing for the Kelso Magic 18-and-under softball team.
Notre Dame also continues to have some players' fathers, including Jeff Schott, occasionally throw batting practice. Players said Schott helps because he has a great deal of movement when throwing riseballs, dropballs and changeups, and he features impressive velocity.
"He does have good movement on the ball," Britney Schott said. "So I think it's an advantage for our team seeing that type of pitching because a lot of other schools don't get to see that type of movement."
Everyone in the Notre Dame lineup has a batting average of .320 or better. Six of the starting nine have averages of .420 or better.
But at state, it might come down to a bunt.
"I think you always have those nerves [about hitting], but our team saw some really good pitching over the summer," Britney Schott said. "So I think, granted we haven't been seeing that great of pitching around here, ... but I think we'll be ready for it. It's nothing we haven't seen before."