By Rebecca Taylor Bludgus
RIDER softball is back for the 2023 season and is ready to make a run at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) title, last season placing fourth in the MAAC with a conference record of 11-9 and an overall record of 28-25-1.
To qualify for the tournament this season, the Broncs need to place at least sixth in conference.
“I think that in order to stay there and actually take it to the next level and actually win in the MAAC Tournament, we need to figure out how this team stays together,” said Head Coach Davon Ortega. “I think with the experience of being in the tournament now, having those returners come back, they bring that level of experience, so we should be able to take it to the next level.”
Graduate student infielder Gianna Epps had faith that the Broncs could make it back after they lost to Marist 3-0 in the first round of the tournament last year.
“We’re looking good for the upcoming preseason and going into our conference games,” said Epps. “I believe we have a very good chance to make it back to the MAAC like we did the past two years.”
In the offseason, Ortega and her staff worked ways to move past the adversity and internal struggles the team faced a year ago that caused them to “fall off” around the midseason mark.
“You can have the most talented team out there, but if they aren’t working together as a team or there’s breakdown amongst them for whatever reason, it keeps you from that championship,” Ortega said. “I really think the pitching is what’s going to carry us.”
Six of Rider’s nine starters from last year return, including a two-way star in junior pitcher Jessie Niegocki.
In the 2022 season, she had a 2.09 ERA with 127 strikeouts all while having a .359 batting average.
When she’s not on the mound, Niegocki is playing second, “I know what it’s like to be in the circle, so I think that gives me a different kind of edge of second base,” she said.
Niegocki was named to the All-MAAC and the All-Region First Teams in 2022.
Junior ace Anna-Marie Groskritz had a 2.59 ERA last season with 22 starts which included four shutouts.
Last year’s starting first base Grace Stansfield graduated, leaving a hole in the lineup.
“We’re working a couple of people in … Olivia Burroughs, who was one of our stronger hitters last year as a freshman, so she’s been working into that spot … [it’s] ultimately going to come down to hitting to replace that bat that Grace brought to the table,” Ortega said.
Seven freshmen are new additions to the team: pitcher Katie Brunner, utility Lilly Feltenberger, utility Julia Harsache, outfielder Maddie Luedtke, pitcher Jadeyn Merrill and pitcher Fallyn Stoeckel.
Stoeckel is one to keep an eye out for. “She’s a lefty pitcher, she might see some time in the outfield as well when she’s not pitching,” said Ortega. “From the pitching perspective, I think that she has a potential to kind of work away into a starting role,” said Ortega.
Stoeckel managed a 1.12 ERA in her senior year of high school and made First Team New Jersey All-State Group 3.
Also, be on the lookout for Harsache. “She’s kind of working in and out right now with multiple positions for us and I think with her bat and she gets a little experience, she might find her way to get that lineup as well,” said Ortega.
Games start this weekend at the Campbell Camel Stampede tournament in Buies Creek, North Carolina where they will be facing Duke for the first time in the first game of the season.
The first home game for the Broncs will be March 15 at 2 p.m. against Monmouth University.