Nebraska softball seeks rebound, return to NCAA tournament

Nebraska softball seeks rebound, return to NCAA tournament
Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle said there has been plenty of good work put in by returning and new players leading up to the start of the season. BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Now that the preseason platitudes have been distributed, the time has arrived for the Nebraska softball team to turn optimistic thoughts into victories.

Following a .500 campaign in 2017, the Huskers finished 31-23 last season but lost nine of their last 10 games, with the final setback being a first-round exit in the Big Ten tournament.

Nebraska coach Rhonda Revelle and two of the Huskers’ top returning players — Alyvia Simmons and Tristen Edwards — met with the media Tuesday before the team heads to Houston to open the 2019 season with an exhibition game against the Japan national team on Thursday at 5 p.m.

Revelle said there has been plenty of good work put in by returning and new players leading up to the start of the season.

“They were open to anything we threw at them as coaches, whether it was a position change or playing multiple positions,” Revelle said. “Their attitude and philosophy about making sure that Nebraska softball is Nebraska softball and the culture that’s been instilled for years and years and years.”

The 55-game regular season begins Friday with the first two of five games in the Lone Star College Classic. Nebraska will play Lamar at 4:30 p.m. and Texas Tech at 7 p.m. Friday and faces those two teams again Saturday before closing tournament play against in-state foe UNO on Sunday at 9 a.m.

While Revelle and both players had optimistic messages about their expectations for the season, including thoughts on team chemistry, an infusion of youth into the roster and team culture, the most important areas to be addressed remain those on the field.

The most important element to watch throughout the season will be how the Huskers perform in the batters box. Nebraska finished 2018 with its third-worst team batting average (.266) since 2000.

That paltry performance comes three seasons after the Huskers hit a school-record .337; that number has steadily declined each season since 2015. There are plenty of spots for newcomers and veterans to step up so that Simmons and Edwards aren’t the only two players opponents have to prepare for.

Edwards hit .356 last season as an All-Big Ten first-team selection, while Simmons is a two-time second-team All-Big Ten performer who hit .346 and led the Huskers with 12 doubles and four triples.

Newcomers like Lindsey Walljasper and Courtney Wallace were mentioned by Revelle as freshmen who will have a chance to contribute early. While both are pitchers, Walljasper also can play outfield and Wallace is a solid defender at third base, a position she often played at Papillion-La Vista.

Where more production will be needed is from returning players like first baseman Madi Unzicker, second baseman Lexey Kneib and catcher Bri Cassidy. Unzicker hit .227 in 2018 and has a career average of .215; Kneib, who is moving to second base from third, hit .171 last season and owns a .174 career average in her first two seasons with the Huskers.

Cassidy is more of a defensive catcher and at times had someone else hitting for her as the designated player. The senior from San Bernardino, California, hit .125 last season and has a .145 career average.

With Walljasper and Wallace joining sophomore Olivia Ferrell, the Huskers could have a solid pitching rotation. Ferrell was 9-8 as a freshman with a 4.35 ERA in 31 appearances.

“We’re going to be young in the circle, but I really believe it’s going to be a strength,” Revelle said. “Our freshmen are both very different, but they’re both winners. They both expect to get the ball and make an impact.”

Revelle said Walljasper “already is throwing three speeds” and Wallace “is an outstanding athlete” whom Revelle expects will get better and better as her collegiate career unfolds.

The nonconference season again has its set of challenges but also has plenty of opportunities for the Huskers to build a strong résumé and attempt to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2016.

There’s also plenty of room for the Huskers to move up in the Big Ten standings. Nebraska finished ninth last season and opens conference player March 22 at Michigan after playing in five tournaments and a three-game series at Wichita State the second weekend of March.

Nebraska’s first home games are scheduled for March 26, when Drake visits Bowlin Stadium for a doubleheader.