For much of the 2016 season, the Binghamton softball team was at the top of its game. After recording the third-best batting average among NCAA Division I teams and securing the America East (AE) regular-season title, it seemed as though the Bearcats were destined to win their second straight conference championship.
However, that goal fell through on BU’s home field during the AE Tournament. BU suffered losses to Maine and Albany in the second and third rounds and was eliminated from contention.
Despite the unexpected end to the Bearcats’ postseason, BU head coach Michelle Burrell Johnston, who was selected as the 2016 AE Softball Coach of the Year, wants her team to remember how last season ended.
“We probably put a little extra pressure on ourselves that we didn’t really need to, so we’re going to use it as a learning experience and go from there,” Burrell Johnston said.
The squad taking the field this year won’t include a talented group of six seniors who led the program to its first AE Title in 2015. One of the biggest losses to graduation is right fielder Sydney Harbaugh, who hit a team-best .439 in conference play last year and holds program records for hits (190), runs (152) and stolen bases (95).
Another player who will be sorely missed in the Bearcats’ lineup is utility player Griffin McIver. McIver led BU with 14 home runs last year, contributing largely to BU’s reputation as a power-hitting team.
Although the Bearcats will carry fewer power bats than they have in past seasons, they plan to use their quickness on the base paths to their advantage.
“I think we’ve got pretty good speed throughout our entire lineup, and we’ve got some speed on our bench,” Burrell Johnston said. “I think we’re going to try to use that a little bit more, putting runners in motion using hit-and-runs, slap-and-runs, those kind of things.”
Replacing last year’s senior class is a group of nine freshmen. To compare, there were just two rookies on the team last season.
“Youth always brings energy, so I definitely think that they’ve brought that,” Burrell Johnston said. “Some of our freshmen had a high-quality travel ball experience where they got to play some really good competition around the country, so I definitely think they’re prepared.”
The area in which the Bearcats’ rookie class will be expected to contribute right away is on the mound. After the graduation of two pitchers and the transfer of sophomore starter Sarah Miller — who was named Most Valuable Player of the 2015 AE Tournament — to Kansas during the offseason, BU lacks experience inside the circle.
“I think we’re the youngest and most inexperienced on the mound right now, so we’re just going to expect them to show some leadership,” Burrell Johnston said. “We’re just going to have to grow and get better every game that they play.”
BU’s top returner is junior Jessica Rutherford, who has anchored the Bearcats’ outfield since her freshman year. As a sophomore, Rutherford was a clutch hitter in the middle of the order, recording a .441 batting average and 48 RBIs before being selected as the BU Female Athlete of the Year.
The Bearcats were recently chosen to finish second — behind last year’s champion Maine — in the AE preseason coaches’ poll.
“I think we made great progress last year winning the America East regular-season title,” said senior outfielder Gabby Bracchi. “I think that we have a lot of motivation, we have a lot of grit and we’re hungry for another America East Championship.”
The Bearcats are set to kick off their season on Thursday at the Michele Smith Pediatric Cancer Invitational in Clearwater, Florida. Their first game is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. against Wisconsin.