The Maryland softball team was in prime position to take a late lead against No. 13 Minnesota to open its season last Friday. Tied at two with the reigning Big Ten tournament champions, the Terps loaded the bases with one out in the seventh inning and brought catcher Kristina Dillard to the plate.
But Dillard grounded into a fielder's choice for the second out, and infielder Juli Strange struck out to end the frame. The Golden Gophers won the game in their half of the inning on an RBI single.
The Terps went on to drop all five of their season-opening Texas Invitational games, but they'll have more opportunities to compete against top competition this weekend at the Aquafina Invitational in Florida. Coach Julie Wright's team hopes its experience playing Minnesota and Texas will benefit it in games against FIU, Northwestern State, Florida A&M and top-ranked Florida, who the Terps will play in the event finale Saturday.
"The Minnesota game was really a big, promising [moment] for us," infielder Skylynne Ellazar said. "We came in and we fought, fought, fought. Our pitching staff did a really good job, and we actually out-hit them.
"So, the cards didn't fall in our favor but that was a really good, promising, moment knowing that they're ranked and that they're top two in our conference."
For the team to have success this weekend, Ellazar said Maryland will have to be more consistent.
"We know that we can do it, and we know that we didn't play our best softball [last week], so I could imagine what we'd do playing our best softball," Ellazar said. "We know that we can play better. We're confident that we can play better, it's just producing and executing that now."
In the first game against Minnesota, pitchers Hannah Dewey and Ari Jarvis combined to hold the Golden Gophers to seven hits and three runs. They also forced Minnesota to strand 10 runners on base. But later in the tournament, the pitching staff struggled to keep opponents from scoring.
Colorado State scored 14 runs with only 12 hits against Maryland last Friday. Texas scored 10 runs with 11 hits, and Minnesota finished the series with 10 runs, five of which were unearned.
When the Terps play Florida on Saturday, they'll try to limit the long ball. The Gators have hit nine home runs through six games, with seven different players contributing. Maryland gave up six homers last weekend, including one grand slam and four three-run blasts.
"It's not about the approach to batters, the plan is fine. It's about executing the pitches," Wright said. Florida is "a good hitting team, they're going to get hits. We're not worried about that. It's more about what they're doing with runners in scoring position."
Ellazar said the pitching staff has worked most this offseason on avoiding batters' dead-red zone, which she described as "pretty much right down the middle." Instead, the pitchers are aiming for the "green to green" — the corners of the plate — and trying to add movement on the ball.
"That's the most you can do, making [the ball] wiggle and not letting them get those home runs and keeping it in the park," Ellazar said. "The pitchers are working hard, and I know that they're making strides in the bullpen."
The Terps likely won't beat Florida, which won the 2014 and 2015 national championships before falling in the Super Regionals last year as the No. 1 seed. Still, they'll look for positive takeaways they can build upon the rest of the season.
"Every school we play is going to be good cause it's Division I softball, and so coach putting us out there against top level teams — teams that you're going to face in the postseason," outfielder Amanda Brashear said. "It's a really good experience to get your feet wet and get ready for the whole Big Ten season."