One month ago, UB softball was riding high.
Backed by the strong two-way play of junior pitcher Alexis Lucyshyn, the team found itself in fourth place in the Mid-American Conference, a favorable spot for a program looking to sneak into the four-team MAC Tournament for the first time since 2012 .
But, after winning their first three MAC series, the Bulls went on a seven-game losing streak, capped off by an injury to their star pitcher and five scoreless hitting performances over a 10-game span.
Now, the once surging Bulls are fledgling. With just 12 games left, they find themselves 3.5 games back of fourth-place Ball State.
Rachel Steffan, a sophomore infielder from nearby Williamsville, chalked up her team’s recent slide to the pressure of a long season and the nature of the sport.
“As you get deeper into the season, people have pressure with school, pressure with just everything in life,” Steffan said. “I think we have to get back to our roots and fight through it. The middle of the season gets tough, but I think we’re going to come out on top.”
There is already reason for optimism: the Bulls took two out of three games from the Cardinals, which narrowed the gap between the two teams. They are playing solid team defense. And they have already gotten their series against conference-leading Miami (Ohio) — a 3-0 loss — out of the way.
But the Bulls still have plenty of work to do, much of which starts at the plate.
The Bulls have just five players hitting above The Mendoza Line — Lucyshyn (.313), junior infielder Brianna Castro (.309), Steffan (.278), graduate utility player Anna Aguon (.219) and senior catcher Olivia Kincanon (.213 ).
The team’s .216 batting average ranks No. 273 out of 293 nationally and last in the MAC.
Head coach Mike Ruechel, who in previous interviews has told The Spectrum he is willing to sacrifice walks and singles for home runs, says he is at a loss when it comes to his team’s poor performance at the plate.
“How do you figure it out?” Ruechel asked rhetorically. “I don’t know what has changed. The pitching is about the same. The approach, everything we do is the exact [same as last year].”
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Last season, UB set a program record with 64 home runs off the bats of nine different players. The team also notched a program record with 212 runs batted-in and secured a 16-22 conference record, their fourth-best of all time.
But many of the players behind that relatively successful season have unexpectedly struggled in 2022.
Aguon, in particular, has had a tough time finding her footing at the plate this season. The Vancouver, Washington native was named first-team All-MAC for the third consecutive season last year after she hit .392 with 14 homers and 36 RBIs. But, through 37 games, she sits at an underwhelming .219 with three homers and 11 RBIs.
She is currently tied for the UB career record for home runs — a spot she has remained in for a dozen consecutive games.
“I went from having a senior first-team all-conference [Aguon], she’s been here three years, we’re doing the exact same thing, and now she’s hitting below .200,” Ruechel, who served as UB’s hitting coach in 2018, said. “I don’t have an answer for that.”
Alexis Matheney, a senior outfielder, was named second-team All-MAC last season after starting all 53 games and posting a .311 batting average. This season, she is batting just .180 with zero homers and six RBIs.
“I don’t know what’s changed,” Ruechel emphasized.
But while much has changed from last season, the team’s strong sense of camaraderie hasn’t.
“We’re so close as a team,” Steffan said. “Everyone loves each other. We hang out even when we’re not at practice, so I love coming to practice and seeing my teammates. That’s pretty much the vibe from everyone. I still have fun coming to practice.”
As the Bulls enter the most crucial stretch of the season — they will likely have to win as many as eight or nine of their remaining 12 games to claw their way back into contention — they say they have one goal: to compete.
But they will have to continue to do so without Lucyshyn, who was the team’s designated hitter over the weekend against Ball State. Lucyshyn suffered an injury during the Akron series that will have her sidelined as a pitcher for an undisclosed amount of time. The Bulls were swept by the Zips last week, which put them in a major hole in the MAC postseason race.
“Your No. 1 thing is that you go out and compete,” Ruechel said. “You try to get better, and at the end of the day, you find things that you build off of. Sooner or later, that’s going to turn into a positive.”
Steffan says she believes the Akron series was the wake-up call her team needed to get back on track with 12 games remaining in the regular season.
“That was the kick in the butt we needed,” she said, referencing her team’s slide in the standings. “I think we’re just going to use what we’ve been through the past few weeks for the rest of the season. We’re hoping to make the MAC playoffs and slide into that fourth spot. That’s the goal: to make the MAC playoffs. We’re in a spot where we can still do so, so we’re just going to keep working.”
Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at [email protected]
Justin Weiss is The Spectrum’s managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things on his TV when his sports teams aren’t winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.
Photo: Courtesy of Ken Smith / Department of Theater and Dance