The Maryland softball team's five-game winning streak early in Big Ten play propelled it to its best conference start since joining the Big Ten, seemingly indicating significant progress after the team's four conference wins each of the past two years.
But the Terps won just two more games over conference opponents during the final month of the season. Their youth and inexperience seemed to catch up to them — including in the team's first-round loss to Illinois in its first conference tournament game since 2015 — as they committed the most errors of any Big Ten team.
"We do know we are young," outfielder Amanda Brashear said. "We had to take advantage of the learning experience of being in the postseason to take into next year."
The Terps entered the year with just two starters with at least two years of starting experience at a Division I school. Right-hander Sydney Golden played two years at Cal State Fullerton before transferring in July, and infielder Skylynne Ellazar had been a stalwart in the Terps' lineup for her sophomore and junior seasons in College Park.
One of Ellazar's roles on the team was to keep her vocal, high-energy teammates grounded.
"If I'm calm, I know they're calm," Ellazar said early in the year. "Just telling them that mistakes are going to happen, and that they've got to just shake it off and keep playing."
Maryland entered conference play 10-19 after playing some top-flight competition in its early-season tournaments, racking up seven losses to ranked teams outside of the Big Ten. A year after earning a giant-killer reputation by giving No. 1 Florida its first loss, the Terps lost all 10 games they played against ranked opponents in 2018.
On the season, the Terps made 93 errors and surrendered 73 unearned runs.
"Defense was not our strength this year," third-year coach Julie Wright said. "We made miscues and got ourselves in bad situations all season long."
The young team also struggled in crunch time. From the sixth inning on, the Terps were cumulatively outscored 86-32. When trailing after five innings, they were 1-22.
Still, thanks largely to a hot start in Big Ten play, Maryland won seven more games than last year, and qualified for the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 2015.
But the Terps' issues came back to haunt them in the conference tournament against Illinois, when poor defense turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 loss.
While the Terps will lose their leading hitter in Ellazar, they return their top two pitchers in Golden and Ryan Denhart, two newcomers who were instrumental in Maryland's improvement this year.
"We were a lot stronger on the mound than last year, which kept us in a lot more games," Wright said. "If we can pair that with some stronger offense next year we'll be in really good shape."
With Golden and Denhart returning, Wright believes the season was a step in the right direction for a program struggling to improve on its status as a Big Ten bottom-feeder.
"Understanding the game and the demands of the game and what it was really going to take to win at this level was huge," Wright said. "Once they saw what they really had to do to win at this level, I think they started to take off. That process took a lot of the year, but I think they get it now, and it will happen very quickly next year."