With only four games remaining before the ACC Tournament, the North Carolina softball team has not had the season it had hoped for. But despite sitting at 12-23 entering the final series, the Tar Heels believe they can finish the season strong.
In addition to navigating the pandemic, UNC has been riddled with injury woes this season. Two of the the team's top players — junior Hannah George and senior Brittany Pickett — have missed some time on the mound, which has forced the Tar Heels to rely on less experienced pitchers.
“It really has fallen onto pitching and not being able to close those games out because most of them have ended on big hits,” redshirt junior pitcher Katie Grace Olinger said.
Despite the team’s pitching shortage, Olinger has shown tremendous growth in recent games. In the team’s most recent series, she held No. 22 Duke to just one run in five innings in the final game.
UNC has also continued to grow offensively and defensively throughout the season, but this upward trend has not yet parlayed into more wins. The Tar Heels have been able to get some early leads on teams, but have struggled to maintain them in late innings.
“It’s a game of inches, and the inches right now aren’t going our way,” head coach Donna Papa said. “But our team is fighting like heck to get one.”
Over the last two series against Pittsburgh and Duke, UNC blew three saves, which led to walk-off losses. To make a late-season turnaround, the team knows it must close out games strong.
“While we haven’t been able to finish that seventh inning, it proves to us that we can get to that seventh inning and be winning that ball game,” Olinger said. “And the more that we create that stamina with the people we have in, we can close that out.”
In a year full of health challenges, everyone has played a critical role on the field this season. A number of young players have stepped into key positions, which could bolster the team's development moving forward.
Two first-year players, Kiannah Pierce and Kayla Baptista, have become steady presences in the lineup. They are batting .308 and .263 respectively.
“Everyone on the roster has needed to contribute in some way, shape or form this season,” Baptista said. “It’s brought the most out of every single player on this team.”
In addition to providing quality innings, the Tar Heels have had to display high amounts of character during this up-and-down season. Papa believes that this sense of unity has helped the team establish a positive culture.
“Everybody is playing for each other and rallying around one another and playing hard for one another,” Papa said.
Although the Tar Heels have lost nine consecutive games, they are hopeful that their hard efforts will translate into success in the ACC Tournament, which begins on May 12 in Louisville.
As UNC closes out the regular season and heads into postseason play, the team is determined to pull out some big wins and not go down without a fight.
"I think every game we are just trying to go out there and fight and prove that we are able to do it," Papa said. "And we are just so, so close, and I know it is going to happen for us soon.”
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