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Pitt

Pitt softball team enjoying strong start, first ranking in program history

Jerry DiPaola
| Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, 4:18 p.m.
Sophomore Olivia Gray, a Trinity graduate, hit a bases-clearing double to help the Pitt softball team defeat Central Florida and start the 2017 season 5-0. The perfect start earned the Panthers a spot in the rankings for the first time in program history.
Pitt Athletics
Sophomore Olivia Gray, a Trinity graduate, hit a bases-clearing double to help the Pitt softball team defeat Central Florida and start the 2017 season 5-0. The perfect start earned the Panthers a spot in the rankings for the first time in program history.
Sophomore Olivia Gray, a Trinity graduate, helped the Pitt softball team to a 5-0 start and the first national ranking in program history. Gray had five RBIs over the first five games.
Pitt Athletics
Sophomore Olivia Gray, a Trinity graduate, helped the Pitt softball team to a 5-0 start and the first national ranking in program history. Gray had five RBIs over the first five games.

Olivia Gray's bases-loaded double was great. Getting thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple? Not so great.

The clutch hit in the top of the eighth inning last Sunday launched Pitt's softball team to its fifth consecutive victory, a 6-3 triumph over Central Florida at the season-opening UCF Knights Invitational in Orlando, Fla.

But for coach Holly Aprile, the victory was less important than the process that led to it. Making the final out of the inning on third base didn't matter as much as the attempt.

Aprile's team, the most successful on Pitt's campus at the moment, is nationally ranked for the first time in program history: No. 24 by USA Today and No. 25 by ESPN.com. Winning all five games in the tournament — three against warm-weather teams UCF and Florida A&M and two against then-No. 20 Kentucky — was nice, but Aprile was more focused on the team's mindset that, she said, made it happen.

Gray, a Trinity graduate who hit. 325 as a freshman last year, was hitless in her first two at-bats Sunday and, in fact, came home from Florida with a .176 average. But when the outcome was at stake, she delivered.

“You can have two at-bats or three at-bats that are just horrible,” Aprile said, “and then you come up there and the bases are loaded and, here it is, you can win the game.

“If you lost it mentally, you're not going to be ready for that moment.”

Aprile wants to win, but she said, “We don't talk about results.”

“We talk about the things that will take care of winning. The idea is to go and put out what you've been practicing and what you've been preparing for and just let that do its thing.

“Sometimes, you get the result, and sometimes you don't. We try not to focus on that.”

So far, she'll take the results. At 5-0, Pitt, a so-called cold-weather school, is the only other ACC team recognized in the national rankings after Florida State, which is No. 3 in both polls.

Pitt was picked to finish eighth in the 11-team ACC, according to the coaches' preseason poll, but Aprile ignores such things.

“The preseason rankings, we try to make it as irrelevant as possible,” she said.

Aprile said softball talent in cold-weather locales is improving because of increased specialization and more players training year-round in indoor facilities.

Five of the 18 players on Pitt's roster played in the WPIAL. At times last season, all three of the Panthers' starting outfielders were from the WPIAL: Giorgiana Zeremenko (Canon-McMillan), Gray and Erin Hershman (Mars). Four players came from California, including shortstop McKayla Taylor of Huntington Beach, who had options closer to home.

“I wanted to travel,” she said. “I felt comfortable moving across the country.”

Aprile didn't have to go that far to find one of her team's top pitchers, freshman Brittany Knight, the ACC Pitcher of the Week. Knight, a native of Windham, Ohio, recorded three victories and a save in Orlando.

“Brittany is just a tremendous competitor,” Aprile said. “She will throw it out there, literally and figuratively.”

Pitt returns to Florida for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge starting Friday on Florida State's campus in Tallahassee. Pitt plays two games each against Nebraska and Northwestern and will return March 31-April 2 for a three-game series against defending ACC champion Florida State.

That will be the true test of Pitt's readiness to make a second trip to the NCAA Tournament in the past three years.

Aprile expects her team to confidently confront the challenge.

“You can throw whatever you want at us, and we're going to beat it and we're happy to beat it,” Aprile said.

“It's kind of cool to see if you can compete,” Gray said, “and, obviously, we can.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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