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Pitt

Pitt softball team enjoying hot start

| Tuesday, March 17, 2015, 9:48 p.m.
Pitt pitcher Savannah King has led the Panthers to a 22-5 start, which already has eclipsed the team's victory totals from the past two seasons.
Pitt athletics
Pitt pitcher Savannah King has led the Panthers to a 22-5 start, which already has eclipsed the team's victory totals from the past two seasons.
Pitt third baseman/catcher Shelby Pickett, a transfer from Ohio State, is among the ACC leaders in several offensive categories.
Pitt athletics
Pitt third baseman/catcher Shelby Pickett, a transfer from Ohio State, is among the ACC leaders in several offensive categories.
Pitt third baseman/catcher Shelby Pickett, a transfer from Ohio State, is among the ACC leaders in several offensive categories.
Pitt athletics
Pitt third baseman/catcher Shelby Pickett, a transfer from Ohio State, is among the ACC leaders in several offensive categories.

If Pitt's softball season ended today, it'd be a major success.

And the Panthers haven't even played a home game yet.

Pitt (22-5, 4-2 ACC) is off to the best start in school history and already has eclipsed its win totals from the previous two years. The Panthers, who visit Penn State on Wednesday before hosting N.C. State on Saturday, are on pace to break the team record of 34 wins, which was set in 2011.

Pitt also is receiving votes in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 Poll for the first time since 2008.

“We're having fun and staying loose,” senior pitcher Savannah King said. “The whole dynamic seems to be a lot different. We're more confident.”

It doesn't take a sabermetrician to figure out why the Panthers have made such enormous strides. Last year, Pitt batted .240 and had a team ERA of 4.66. This spring, the Panthers are hitting .318 with a team ERA of 2.39.

Offensively, three new starters have bolstered the lineup.

Junior pitcher/infielder Jenna Modic, a transfer who earned first-team all-conference as a freshman at Miami (Ohio), is hitting .344 with three homers and 23 RBIs.

Redshirt junior third baseman/catcher Shelby Pickett, a transfer from Ohio State, also has three homers and 23 RBIs and ranks second in the ACC with a .427 batting average.

And freshman shortstop McKayla Taylor leads the team with six homers and 25 RBIs.

“This year, there is so much more focus and a new energy,” said Pickett, who missed last season with a torn ACL. “We have a sense that we're not going to lose.”

Focus is the buzzword surrounding the Panthers. Last season, while stumbling to a 15-29 record, coach Holly Aprile said players allowed outside factors to become distractions.

“Whether it was off-field stuff or umpires or weather or frustrations with who knows what, but I think we're doing a much better job of managing those things this year,” Aprile said.

Perhaps King is the best example. As a freshman, she broke Pitt records for wins (19), complete games (26) and innings (2271⁄3), and her 196 strikeouts and 1.72 ERA were second best in school history. But her numbers dipped as a sophomore and junior as she compiled a combined record of 17-35 and saw her ERA rise to 4.49 last spring.

“The last couple of years, it seems the umpires have made it more of a hitters' game,” King said. “One thing I've been working on this year is still throwing my pitches, and if I happen to walk someone, I walk someone, but I'm going to stay in my game rather than letting the umpires get to me.”

That approach, along with an increased use of a rising fastball to complement her drop curveball, is working. King is 13-2 with a 1.72 ERA. Her win total ranks second in the ACC and is tied for 10th in the nation.

“I think she's just been able to stay on track (this season),” Aprile said. “At any given time, things can derail a player. Athletes have to be able to maintain their focus and feel good about what they're doing.”

The heart of Pitt's ACC schedule awaits, including a visit to No. 10 Florida State on March 28-29, but King doesn't sound like she's worried about pressure.

“For me and a couple of the other seniors, there's only a couple months left of playing softball after 16 years of my life,” King said. “ We just want to go out with a bang and try to enjoy it to the fullest.”

Jeff Vella is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jvella@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.

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