Notebook: Now or never for Temple
Another week brought a fresh round of frustration on the softball diamond for Temple.
Playing its first-ever series as part of the American Athletic Conference, Temple dropped three games in a row at Houston. The host needed just 10 innings to secure a pair of run-rule wins in Saturday's doubleheader, limiting the visitors to three hits and nary a run in the process. The bats came to life Sunday, but the result was in some ways more painful for the Owls when a seventh-inning lead disappeared on an error and a walk that brought home the winning runs for the Cougars.
The Owls are 7-14. They have been beset by injuries that left two important contributors, Lacey McKeon and Jessica Haug, out for a third week with concussions, and they are still without third-team All-American Stephanie Pasquale, who hasn't played yet this season because of a broken hand. It's not a hole so deep as to be inescapable in late March, but it's deep enough that those involved could be excused for thinking about, if never verbalizing, a familiar sentiment to lost seasons: Wait until next year.
Except that Temple can't wait for another chance next season. There will be no next season.
Temple is a softball program without a future. On Dec. 6, three days before the start of final exams, athletic director Kevin Clark announced the school is eliminating seven varsity sports -- including softball -- in a measure to cut costs, or to "right size," in the administration's parlance. A recent reprieve spared men's crew and women's rowing from the original list of seven teams, but baseball, softball, men's gymnastics, and men's indoor and outdoor track and field will not be part of the athletic program when the 2014-15 academic year begins.
Before that day, when softball coach Joe DiPietro said he learned of the program's impending demise only about 30 minutes before the students -- who themselves learned minutes before the news was made public -- DiPietro thought the 2014 season could be special. The team returned almost everyone from a group that set a program record with 32 wins last season, the fifth consecutive season in which its win total increased, and tied national champion Oklahoma with the third-most home runs in the nation.
Even after the news, he held on to the thought that roster continuity might salvage the final season.
"I was completely wrong," DiPietro said. "This has devastated these kids. ... It's been awful, to be honest with you. It's been an absolute nightmare. From Dec. 6 on, we haven't caught a break."
The injuries haven't helped (Pasquale may redshirt to preserve her final season of eligibility), but the entire roster might as well be listed as day-to-day with chronic uncertainty. Aside from six seniors, including Pasquale, the three juniors, six sophomores and six freshmen have to figure out what to do next and worry that every 0-for-3 could scare off schools interested in bringing them in as transfers. The players will be able to transfer without penalty, but there is no guarantee they will find homes that offer matching scholarship money, let alone playing time.
DiPietro said all of the juniors are leaning toward staying at Temple to finish school without softball. The university said it would honor existing scholarships for affected athletes, and it's unlikely credits would transfer in a manner that would allow them to graduate in one year at a different school, even in the event that school had similar money available.
When sophomore Kelsey Dominik was going through the recruiting process, people repeatedly told her to think about whether she would still be comfortable at a given school if the coach left. Nobody ever counseled her to think about whether she would be comfortable at a school if the softball program left. So after the shock wore off from being blindsided by the initial announcement, she too thought at first about staying at the school she'd committed to as a sophomore in high school. And then she thought about two springs coming and going without softball.
"It's not just a sport to me; it's literally like my life and my passion because I've played it for so long," Dominik said. "It's just something that I always want to be involved in. So I feel like having two years of eligibility left and not using them would kill me inside. I feel like I really want to still play my sport."
The state player of the year as a high school senior in New Jersey, Dominik lived up to expectations at the plate as a freshman at Temple. Part of the team's power surge, she hit 14 home runs and slugged .611. But it was in the circle where she made perhaps her most valuable contribution. DiPietro didn't really think she would be a factor in his pitching plans, no matter how many times she insisted otherwise, but she went 15-8 and had the team's best ERA by more than run. With as many runs as the Owls scored, they didn't need someone to throw shutouts every game. They just needed someone to throw consistent innings and let the offense to its thing. Dominik obliged.
"She's just an awesome kid," DiPietro said. "She's the kind of kid that you just look forward to going to practice every day and working with. Whatever you say, she tries to do it right there on the spot."
Now she wonders where she will play next season. She says she can put it out of her mind when the games begin, but in almost the same breath, she acknowledges thinking of every game as something other programs are watching. She visited a couple of schools over winter break and hopes to make a decision before the end of the current season.
There is still time for the team to make a run. The Owls have yet to play a home game at the stadium located on a satellite campus in Ambler, Pa. (the school cited the distance to the baseball and softball facilities as one of the reasons for its decision to eliminate those sports, although men's and women's soccer will continue at the same location). The home opener is scheduled for Wednesday, weather willing.
No matter what, it really is now or never for the Owls.
"This is our last time playing together as a group," Dominik said. "This has become like a second family to me. I feel so comfortable around these girls, and I know I can trust them with anything. We want to do this for each other and for our coaches and just go out with a bang. We want to show Temple, show everybody, that you cut the wrong sport."
Players of the week
Taylor Newton, James Madison: We're a long way from conference tournaments, but Newton's effort this past weekend may have gone a long way toward ensuring that James Madison plays those tournament games at home as the top seed in the Colonial Athletic Association. James Madison swept three games from fellow power Hofstra to open CAA play. The Dukes scored 12 runs in the series, and Newton drove in eight of them. That included both RBIs in a 2-1 win in the finale, capped by a sixth-inning solo home run. For the weekend, the freshman went 5-for-8 with three home runs and a double.
Madison Shipman, Tennessee: A season ago, the Lady Vols had one player, Lauren Gibson, who was SEC Player of the Year, and another, Raven Chavanne, who was one of the three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year. They may have one player capable of replacing both. It's early to talk end-of-season honors, but Shipman is putting together a resume. The senior ranks in the top 10 in the SEC in OPS while playing nearly flawlessly at shortstop. This past week, that added up to seven RBIs and a .429 batting average (6-for-14). And in the finale of a sweep against South Carolina, with ace Ellen Renfroe suffering through rare control issues, Shipman recorded nine assists without an error in a 6-5 win.
Jaclyn Traina, Alabama: First and foremost, Traina's legacy at Alabama will be that of the ace who finally brought a national championship to Tuscaloosa and to the SEC. But not far down the list is a pitcher who was always up for a big game. Pitching through seven walks in Friday's opener at Florida, she allowed just two hits and struck out six batters to earn the win. She was better still in the series finale, again throwing a two-hitter but this time allowing just two walks and no runs, the meekest offensive showing of the season by the Gators. For good measure, she drew four walks at the plate in the wins.
Shelby Turnier, UCF: Turnier certainly had plenty of opportunities to impress during a week in which she started four times, and she made the most of them. The highlight was a no-hitter during a weekend three-game sweep of American Athletic Association foe Memphis in which she struck out 11 batters, but that was one of three wins for the week. And even in the loss, a 2-1 setback against Purdue, she struck out 10 batters. In all, the sophomore (who forms a strong pitching partnership with Mackenzie Audas) totaled 23 innings, allowed 15 hits and two earned runs, and struck out 36 batters.
Tyler Walker, Minnesota: Minnesota already had wins this season against Arizona State and LSU, in each case on that team's home field, but this past week may be the one that firmly cements its place as a serious national contender. The Gophers finished off a longer trip with a win at South Carolina on Wednesday and then took two of three games at Nebraska to open Big Ten play. Walker was on base for most of that. The junior shortstop went 9-for-13 at the plate on the week, drove in seven runs, and collected two doubles, a home run and two stolen bases out of the leadoff spot.
Alexa Peterson, Oregon: Peterson should be one of the few Pac-12 players with fond memories of Salt Lake City, which has been a difficult place for many conference teams. Oregon's senior had no such trouble in the Beehive State, pounding out 13 RBIs in a three-game sweep of the Utes, hitting for a series cycle with a home run, triple, two doubles and two singles (and two walks, for good measure). In fact, Utah managed to retire her just once in three games. Peterson was good a season ago, one of the best hitters in the Pac-12, but she's already only five RBIs shy of her 2013 total.