‘We have big goals that we’re ready to accomplish’

Veteran leadership, young talent headline hopeful 2023 for Quinnipiac softball

Michael LaRocca, Opinion Editor

 The pressure is on. It has been a historic year for Quinnipiac athletics. Four of the six fall sports teams won conference championships, and currently, all four winter sports teams are championship contenders. 

This success leaves the spring sports teams with expectations that they will perform up to the standard set by their peers, and no team will feel that pressure more than Quinnipiac softball. 

Heading into 2023, the Bobcats are coming off a season with a decade’s worth of futility. The program has not had a winning season since 2012, back when Quinnipiac was a member of the NEC, and have not been to the MAAC Tournament since 2016. 

No one affiliated with those squads remain, and after a 12-29 campaign in 2022, this year’s team is going to have to climb the mountain from the base. However, when you’re at the bottom, it’s tough for those at the top to see you making your way up. 

“I feel that most people aren’t going to expect much out of us,” head coach Hillary Smith said. “We don’t want anyone to know that we’re coming. We’re coming full force and we have big goals that we’re ready to accomplish.” 

Smith’s fifth season at the helm of the program is going to be defined by how well her team can handle adversity as well as who will step up and lead. 

That leadership may take form in the return of graduate student catcher Hannah Davis, who missed all of conference-play last year due to a broken arm, losing out on an opportunity to make an impact as a senior. 

“I think last year set the bar for me,” Davis said. “I’m a different leader now because of what happened to me last year … I’ve learned a lot behind the scenes. I’ve learned how to motivate each girl individually as opposed to focusing on my own performance.” 

Other veterans, like graduate student utility player Bridget Nasir and senior infielder Lala Pascual will also need to step up as the team was hit with an overflow of underclassmen. According to the Bobcats’ starting roster, the team currently has six freshmen and five sophomores – and that doesn’t even count sophomore pitcher Zali Adams, who is no longer listed. 

However, those freshmen may have been molding into form sooner than some may expect, with players like infielders Sofia Vega and Natalia Apatiga already receiving high praise from Smith. 

“I call (Apatiga) a ninja,” Smith said. “You’re going to see her do things that are going to blow your mind. She’s going to make plays that you just can’t believe … The same goes with (Vega). She surprised me because we put her in a position she’s never played before. I mean, the plays that she was making, I was like, ‘Oh my god, you’re an animal.’” 

While Vega and Apatiga were mentioned specifically by Smith, she made sure to emphasize how much this freshman class will mean for the team moving forward. 

“I think they’re going to be a big part of the puzzle that we’ve been missing,” Smith said. “I’m excited to see how they fit those pieces in for us, and to see how we excel this year.” 

However, before the team can excel, the main piece that needs improvement is the pitching staff. 

In 2022, the Bobcats relied heavily on the trio of then-freshman, now-sophomore pitchers Jaclyn Gonzalez, Sydney Horan and Taylor Walton. Especially Gonzalez and Horan, who were the workhorses of the staff pitching 185 innings combined, which equated to over 70% of the team’s innings pitched. 

The pairing worked their way to ERAs over 4.6, which as freshmen anchoring the pitching for an entire team, can be seen as serviceable. However, that production cannot be sustainable over multiple seasons. As a result, junior pitchers Tori McGraw and Julia Woeste will have to step up in ways they did not in 2022, when they had ERAs of 8.61 and 11.16 respectively over 30 combined innings. If the pitching is able to hold things down, only then can this team hop on the road to winning. 

It will not come easy though. This past offseason, infielder Kayla Thomas, the team’s leader in home runs, runs batted in and slugging percentage, transferred to Campbell. In addition, everyday utility player Cy Gonzalez was left off the roster for undisclosed reasons. Losing both a valuable bat and glove is one thing; finding people to step up in place of them is another. 

That road will begin with 26-straight non-conference matchups, including a 20-game road stretch before the team’s home opening doubleheader against Holy Cross on March 21. MAAC play specifically opens up on April 1, where the Bobcats will face off against the 2022 MAAC champions, the Canisius Golden Griffins, a matchup that Smith has marked on her calendar. 

“That’s who we’re trying to be,” Smith said. “That’s our bar. We’re going out there and we want to compete against them and we want to come out with wins. We want to win that series. We don’t want to split it, we want to win it.” 

Overall, this is shaping up to be a season unlike any other for Quinnipiac softball. With the success of the fall and winter teams, all eyes are on them to keep up the momentum, and it is a challenge they’re willing to take on. 

“That’s just the Quinnipiac standard,” Davis said. “That’s what we have to hit, that’s bare minimum, and we know we have to achieve more than that … I think that just gave us more ammunition to be like, ‘Okay, you guys can do that, watch this, watch us, we’re gonna go further.’” 

All that’s left to do for this team is wait for opening day, which will be at the Hampton/Norfolk State Tournament on Friday, Feb. 17, where the Bobcats will face off against Georgetown at 12:30 p.m. 

Very few people believed that Quinnipiac could win championships in the fall, but they did. Maybe this will be another case of history repeating itself. It’s in their hands. They just need to go get it.