The Maryland softball team was 0-8. Northwestern State had just rocked the Terps, 13-2, in six innings Feb. 17. The next day, Maryland lost to Florida A&M before playing No. 1 Florida in the second half of its doubleheader. Signs pointed to a second straight tournament sweep to start the season.
But that's when the Terps completed one of the largest upsets of the college softball campaign. The Gators lost only five games during the regular season, four of those coming at the hands of Top-25 programs. The other loss was against Maryland. It was the Terps' first win of the year.
Pitcher Madison Martin walked out of the circle with a calm demeanor, as if knocking off top-ranked opponents were an everyday occurrence. While the Terps defeated then-No. 24 Missouri and then-No. 18 Michigan later in the year — beating three top-25 opponents for the first time since 2010 — those were highlights of an otherwise disappointing season. Maryland finished last in the Big Ten with its worst-ever winning percentage (.216).
"Next year, the big thing to work on is that we're going to play consistent," coach Julie Wright said. "We play consistent softball every single game, you'll win a lot more that way."
In pitching, batting and fielding, Maryland ranked in the bottom three of the Big Ten. Martin and pitcher Hannah Dewey threw more than 80 percent of the innings. While the pair was a part of a group that held the second-worst ERA in the conference (4.69), both pitched gems in marquee victories, carrying a pitching staff that consisted of three underclassmen outside the two seniors.
Dewey allowed two runs in 5.1 innings against Florida, while Martin earned the save. Dewey surrendered just one run in 11 frames against Penn State for an extra-innings win. Martin threw one-hitters in complete-game victories over Bowling Green and St. John's.
But the two pitchers' graduation leaves a 286.1-inning hole in the bullpen. It's a larger void than the one pitcher Brenna Nation vacated last year. When the redshirt junior graduated, it thrusted pitcher Lauren Graves into the circle, a freshman who wasn't supposed to pitch much in her rookie campaign.
The White Hall, Arkansas, native struggled out of the gate with her command. In 20 innings, Graves walked 33 batters and allowed 37 runs. While she improved down the stretch by throwing 2.2 scoreless innings against Wisconsin, her ERA never recovered from the early-season shock, finishing at 9.45.
"[Graves will] help lead this pitching staff [next season]," Wright said. "Her tremendous improvement over the year, in the bullpen and all the work she did, she's really going to shine. … We just had a plan in place, and we had to change that plan a little bit. It's tough to rush her process, and when you do that … sometimes you don't get the end result you want."
Along with Graves, pitchers Sami Main and Ari Jarvis should move into larger roles. Main threw five innings while playing in the infield on occasion. Jarvis tossed 14.2 innings during the season-opening Texas Invitational, but finished the year with only 28.2 frames.
Next season, Wright said she's adding a talented freshman pitcher.
While seniors drove the pitching staff, four newcomers hit above .250 this year. Outfielder Amanda Brashear led the team with a .304 batting average and infielder Anna Kufta hit a team-high six home runs.
After Maryland split its midweek doubleheader against Rutgers last week, the team's chances at a Big Ten tournament berth slimmed. But when Maryland arrived in College Park after its bus trip home from New Brunswick, New Jersey, the freshmen asked their coach to turn the softball field lights on so they could hit more.
"That is a future," Wright said. "[Kufta] will be a mainstay, that's for sure."
Maryland's 8-3 loss to Wisconsin on Friday ended its hopes of making the conference tournament, causing the team to miss out on the 12-team competition for the second straight year.
Kufta played shortstop for the first time in her career this year as part of a large infield reshuffle to begin Big Ten play. While the team finished the year second-worst in the conference with a .945 fielding percentage, that rate improved in conference games. The Terps were seventh in Big Ten games with a .957 fielding percentage.
In one of the most complex positions on the field, Kufta faced a constant learning curve. Wright plans to move Kufta, whom she recruited as a catcher and third baseman, behind the plate next year after catcher Kristina Dillard's graduation.
The move leaves three infield positions open. Juli Strange graduates from third base while Jordan Aughinbaugh vacates first base. Wright said athletes playing in comfortable positions from the beginning of the year spurs consistency.
While six seniors are leaving the program, six freshmen will join. Wright expects her current players to continue working hard by setting the tone during the fall season.
"We'll be young but very talented," Wright said. "There's a lot of work that got done this season that no one, outside of us, will see until next year. Then all of a sudden, you'll be like, 'Wow, that looks entirely different.' Well, it looks different because they did the heavy lifting."