Softball Team Finds Its Chemistry and Eyes an NCAA Regional
Opinion • By Steve Beideck
A most unexpected renaissance has become the bright spot of an otherwise bleak Nebraska athletics spring season.
With each victory, the Nebraska softball team further fades the memory of an internal university investigation following the 2019 season into player concerns about a virulent culture they said had engulfed the program.
Only a handful of players in the program that season are still on the Husker roster.
But whatever changes came from that tumultuous summer, the underclassmen are helping lead the charge that has placed Nebraska back in the national conversation. The guidance they’re receiving from Omaha-area veterans like Olivia Ferrell, Courtney Wallace and Peyton Glatter also are taking hold.
In the first full season of softball since 2019 – the global pandemic cut short the 2020 season and only conference foes were on the schedule in 2021 – Rhonda Revelle’s 33-9 Huskers are on a heater the likes of that hasn’t been seen in Lincoln since 2004.
Entering a weekend series at Wisconsin, Nebraska had won 18 consecutive games since beginning the 2022 season 15-9. That nonconference slate includes losses to Northern Iowa, Southeastern Louisiana, two setbacks to San Diego and a 1-2 record against South Dakota State.
This schedule wasn’t as loaded with upper-echelon opponents as it has been in recent seasons. Chances to play two traditional powers were lost to poor weather conditions – two against No. 10 Arkansas in Fayetteville and a home game against Stanford, which currently is No. 35 in the RPI.
Nebraska’s “best loss” was a March 13 setback to Central Florida, which is No. 14 in the most recent RPI standings.
As of this writing, the Huskers are 13-0 in Big Ten play, one game ahead of Nos. 7- and 10-ranked Northwestern (30-6, 11-1), with two series remaining in the regular season at Ohio State and home against Indiana before the May 11-14 Big Ten tournament in East Lansing, Michigan.
Things have been going so well that Nebraska has worked its way back into the Top 25. They debuted at No. 21 in the D1softball.com ratings following the Easter weekend sweep of Minnesota. The Huskers also are No. 25 in the USA Today/NFCA ratings and No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll.
With Ferrell and Wallace having the best seasons of their careers, and a batting order that features eight players hitting better than .300, the Huskers seem destined to return to an NCAA Regional for the first time since 2016.
How the Huskers have returned to their winning ways while receiving a modicum of national attention has caught the attention of NU Athletic Director Trev Alberts.
It “might just be one of the great stories we have had around here in a long time,” Alberts said on the “Sports Nightly” radio show. “I do not know how to explain it, other than this is a team that believes in itself.
“This is a team that was down 8-1 against Minnesota and had every reason to say, ‘We have won the series, Minnesota is a great team. They will probably win one.’ Well, they didn’t accept that and found a way to fight back and win that game.”
After dispatching the Gophers, including that school record-tying comeback from a 7-run deficit to win 11-8 on April 18, the Huskers moved to No. 27 in the NCAA RPI standings through games played April 19.
Despite being undefeated in conference games, three Big Ten rivals are ahead of Nebraska in the RPI standings – Northwestern (6), Ohio State (22) and Michigan (23), a team the Huskers defeated twice in Ann Arbor to open conference play. Wisconsin (31), Illinois (32) and Minnesota (39) aren’t far behind and give the Big Ten seven schools in the top 40.
The overall strength of the conference is helping Nebraska improve its profile for potential seeding in one of the 16 NCAA Regionals that begin May 20.
Doubters outside the program point to the 15-9 nonconference record and the teams NU isn’t playing in conference.
Nebraska doesn’t play any of the three teams – Northwestern, Illinois and Maryland – immediately behind them in the conference standings. Penn State and Purdue also aren’t on NU’s conference slate this season.
But remember, it’s beyond Nebraska’s control who they play in conference. This is the first time since 2014 that Nebraska hasn’t played the Wildcats. Also, Maryland’s fourth-place position in the league standings is a bit deceptive because its spot in the RPI standings is No. 86, two better than Southeastern Louisiana.
Yes, Nebraska has played the three teams at the bottom of the Big Ten – Rutgers, Iowa and Michigan State – and all have 1-13 conference records. Minnesota is in 10th place at 5-7 but is 19-18-1 overall with that RPI in the top 40.
Try this view instead: The Huskers are defeating the teams they should be beating. That hasn’t been the case with NU since at least 2015 and even in that NCAA Regional season the Huskers weren’t completing series sweeps and were losing games to teams behind them in the standings.
Sweeps have become common this season because of elevated play in the three primary aspects of the game: pitching, hitting and defense.
Ferrell has evolved into one of the Big Ten’s top two or three pitchers, and Wallace isn’t far behind with another season on the horizon because of the pandemic.
Nebraska’s batting order, top to bottom, hasn’t been this good since 2015. That’s the season when eight Huskers finished the season with batting averages higher than .300, though two of those players played in just 36 of the 58 games.
Husker hitters this season are on pace to top those 2015 numbers with eight players currently hitting .312 or better.
Mya Felder leads the way with a .411 average, followed by Cam Ybarra (.372), Ava Bredwell (.366), Abbie Squier (.361), Billie Andrews (.353), Sydney Gray (.336), Caitlynn Neal (.315) and Wallace (.312). Glatter is ninth at .290, and Ferrell has hit .262 in limited plate appearances as she is focusing more on her pitching responsibilities.
Ferrell, when called upon, still has game-changing power at the plate. She hit .730 with three hits, two home runs and three RBIs in the Michigan State series.
Andrews has been the scariest hitter for opponents to face all season. In NU’s three-game series with Rutgers, the sophomore from Gretna was 0-for-1 but scored three runs in the first game and had an RBI in the third game.
That’s an odd stat line until you know that Scarlet Knights pitchers walked Andrews, who bats leadoff, 10 times – four times in each of the first two games and twice in the third game.
One of her walks came with the bases loaded in Game 2, forcing home Bredwell with the first run of the game in a 2-1 victory. Andrews leads the Huskers in eight offensive categories: on-base plus slugging (1.278), on-base percentage (.473), runs scored (45), hits (47), home runs (18), RBIs (45), total bases (107) and walks (31).
Pitching around Andrews didn’t work for Rutgers, and it likely wouldn’t work for long with so many other players hitting so well. Four other Huskers – Felder, Ybarra, Squier and Gray – have an OPS of 1.026 or better.
There are still plenty of games to play before the postseason begins. The Huskers have so far deftly handled the responsibility of being the team others are chasing. If Nebraska gets to 40 wins before the conference tournament – three more sweeps would put them at 42-9 – NU will be one of those hot teams opponents will want to avoid.