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'New standard for ECU softball'

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By Ronnie Woodward
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

According to some of coach Courtney Oliver’s players, what uncertainty or anxiousness that might have been present with East Carolina softball at this time last year has generally turned into confidence.

The Pirates, who begin their second season under Oliver on Friday with games against Syracuse and Winthrop in Athens, Ga., found new optimism in 2016 in the form of a seven-win improvement from the previous campaign. This year’s squad features pitcher Lydia Ritchie back as a senior ace, an offense with potential for big power and a comfort level with Oliver and her staff that has the Pirates looking to continue their climb after showing signs of promise last spring.

“I think with this second year (led by Oliver), we have a new standard for ECU softball,” said junior infielder Karlie Smith, who as a sophomore led ECU with a .323 batting average. “We’ve really just been trying every single day and every single rep to meet that standard that we’ve set for ourselves. Hopefully that will show a lot of improvement from last season to this season.”

A focus for Oliver while she was an assistant at N.C. State was working with pitchers, and she was hired by the Pirates after ECU went 16-37 in 2015 and was searching for new direction.

The Pirates were 23-31 a year ago, a record that was boosted by a 13-6 mark in neutral site games.

ECU will play six games this weekend, including two against the host Bulldogs, and then hold tournaments at the ECU Softball Stadium the following two weekends with the Pirate Clash and then Pirate Invitational.

Smith is a key part in East Carolina returning three of its top four hitters, in terms of average, from last season. Senior outfielder Ciara Ervin brings a unique blend of speed and power after leading the team in 2016 with seven home runs and finishing 6-of-8 on stolen base attempts.

Oliver said Ervin, Kacie Oshiro and freshman Olivia Narron are quality speed options to hit near the top of the lineup, but the team’s offense is likely to be based around power.

New first baseman Meredith Burroughs, an N.C. State transfer, is expected to be a big part of that potential. She hit 22 total home runs during her two seasons at State.

“One through nine, we have a lot of pop,” Oliver said.

Ritchie was recently tabbed by Fastpitch News as the No. 35 pitcher in the country. She made 42 appearances as a junior, finishing with a 2.67 ERA that was well below the team’s ERA of 4.16.

“If you’re in a low-scoring game, you have to trust your defense,” Ritchie said of the importance of pitching. “If you try to do too much you can put runners on base or walk people. You just have to trust your defense and your offense that they are going to score behind you.”

At the end of the regular season, the Pirates will not have to worry about traveling for the AAC tournament because it will be played at ECU May 11-13. In Oliver’s first season, the Pirates finished sixth out of seven teams in the American and were eliminated in the opening round of the league tourney with a 2-0 loss to Tulsa in Tulsa, Okla.

“Obviously the biggest goal is to win championships here, but we can’t do that without taking it one game at a time right now,” Oliver said.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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