With a No. 1 seed in the Conference USA West Division in the balance, softball enters the final two weeks of the season preparing to make a final push for its second consecutive division title.
North Texas (27-12, 13-5 C-USA) bounced back against the University of Kansas (15-28, 2-10 Big 12 Conference) last weekend, taking two of three games from the Jayhawks. The previous week saw the team drop three of its five games during a recent homestand versus a trio of teams.
“[We] struggled a little bit through the [Louisiana] Tech series, lost to Oklahoma,” head coach Rodney DeLong said. “We’re getting back to winning ways. Sometimes it doesn’t matter who you beat, [it] just feels good just to win.”
The Mean Green currently are tied for C-USA’s overall lead with Western Kentucky University (30-9, 13-5 C-USA) and a game ahead of Louisiana Tech University (32-17, 12-6 C-USA) in the West. The single win North Texas achieved versus the Lady Techsters has proven to be the separator between the two teams. Last weekend, Louisiana Tech swept previous No. 2 the University of Alabama-Birmingham (21-21, 9-8 C-USA) in three games to take the No. 2 spot.
Sitting No. 3 in the West Division, the Blazers are preparing for a home series against the Mean Green in Birmingham. DeLong said that after a sweep, Alabama-Birmingham will be more determined to win.
“If my program had just got swept, I would be pretty motivated to play better this next weekend,” DeLong said. “I think [Alabama-Birmingham] is going to go to work this week and try to give us their best shot.”
Pitching has been an area of focus for North Texas throughout the season. Injuries in staff have reduced the team to using three pitchers in the circle since Feb 19. From that date to April 15, only freshman right-handed pitcher Skylar Savage and junior left-handed pitcher Ashley Peters took the circle for the Mean Green. Junior infielder Saleen Donohoe, who had pitching experience in high school, was explored as an option this month and made her debut on the 15th.
Prior to her debut, Donohoe had not pitched in the last three years with her last appearance coming her senior year of high school at Duncanville High School. Donohoe said she would be ready if her opportunity arose two days before making her first collegiate appearance.
“If I need to get back in [the circle] […] I’m ready for that,” Donohoe said. “If the team needs me, I’ll be there for them.”
Since then, Donohoe has appeared twice for the Mean Green and allowed three runs on two hits while walking two batters. Savage and Peters have still pitched a brunt of the innings in the last month with 92.2 innings pitched.
The Mean Green’s offense is spearheaded by sophomore first baseman Kailey Gamble who leads the team in five offensive categories including batting average (.360), RBIs (42) and home runs (13). Freshman shortstop Cierra Simon has shown a recent uptick in power, hitting four home runs in the last seven games. Simon has raised her batting average from .243 to .270 and extended her career home run count to five.
Redshirt sophomore outfielder Molly Rainey said the momentum shift against Kansas has helped the team regain momentum.
“I think we found a groove, the first game was a little rough,” Rainey said. “I think we’ve kind of figured some things out and are moving in the right direction.”
With two regular season series remaining, North Texas’ next six games versus Alabama-Birmingham and Marshall University (30-13, 12-6 C-USA) will help determine their seeding for the C-USA tournament. North Texas could end up anywhere from the West Division’s No. 1 seed to No. 3.
With only two weeks remaining in the regular season, DeLong said the team is only focusing on what it can control.
“We’re worried about us, worrying about ourselves,” DeLong said. “Some things that we can control and taking care of the things that we’re supposed to be taking care of.”
Featured Image: Freshman shortstop Cierra Simon signals to teammates on March 9, 2022. Photo by Kristian Freeman