On Sept. 22, Penn State will begin its slate of fall games. These contests don’t really carry any weight when it comes to wins and losses, but they do matter when it comes to team development.
The Nittany Lions went 7-34 in regular-season play last year. Past struggles and some departures have left questions to be answered by the blue and white in fall 2021.
The upcoming slate of games should certainly reveal some of coach Clarisa Crowell’s plans and where certain players stand before the full spring season.
Here are the top storylines to keep an eye on this fall.
What the staff looks like behind Parshall
One of the few things not up for debate entering the fall is senior Bailey Parshall is the ace of this pitching staff.
Parshall has a chance to cement herself as one of the best pitchers in Penn State history as she projects to be squarely in the All-Conference discussion come spring.
It’s the players behind Parshall who will be drawing attention in the coming weeks. In collegiate softball, good teams usually have two dependable pitchers trusted to get outs — the best teams typically have three.
The name possibly poised for a breakout in 2022 is junior Vanessa Oatley, who came in as a top-75 recruit in 2019.
Last season, Oatley had an ERA of 4.32 on the season, which doesn’t tell the whole story. That number is inflated by four games where she allowed a total of 31 runs, but in her remaining 16 games, she allowed just 16 runs.
Senior Kylee Lingenfelter is another name who has shown plenty of flashes throughout her career.
Lingenfelter had a 2.90 ERA in 2019 but had some consistency issues since. If she can cut down on the home runs, expect to see a season closer to her 2019 form in 2022.
A good fall from Oatley and Lingenfelter could give the pitching staff some momentum heading into the spring.
New look outfield
Kennedy Legg and Dani Fey, two players who made a lot of starts for the Nittany Lions, graduated after last season, leaving plenty of openings in the outfield.
One would assume senior Lilia Crouthamel, who made more outfield starts in 2021 than any other returning player, is in the driver's seat to lock up one spot.
Crouthamel had some struggles at the plate, but her speed and defense alone could warrant a spot in the lineup. She was tied as the leader in stolen bases last season without being thrown out once.
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There are two other names to keep an eye on — sophomore Melody Coombs and junior Maggie Finnegan.
Coombs settled into second base last year after getting her start in the outfield. Something to monitor in the fall games is how many reps Coombs plays in the outfield.
Finnegan is in a similar situation, as she saw most of her time at first base last season but has proven to be versatile. With some shuffling to come, Crowell might want to move Finnegan around — given the lack of experience in the outfield.
One of the more interesting players in this year’s group is junior shortstop Kaitlyn Morrison. She came in as a top recruit in 2020 and had a strong freshman campaign. However, things didn’t go as well in 2021.
Morrison is likely safe at shortstop, as she’s the only player on the team with extensive experience at the position, and she showed promise as an underclassmen.
If Penn State wants to see significant improvement, a bounce-back season from Morrison may be needed, and the fall could be an indicator of whether that’s in the cards for the junior.
Another player in a similar situation is the aforementioned Finnegan, who led the team in batting average in 2020 at .306 before struggling in 2021 which saw her average dip to .169.
Finnegan has the natural ability to be a good hitter. If some of that starts to gel in the fall — along with improvement from Morrison — it will be a promising sign for Crowell’s 2022 lineup.
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This fall, there will be a handful of players that haven’t seen much of the field the previous two years and are looking to carve out a bigger role in 2022.
One of them is junior Michelle Leone, who started 24 games last year, had one of the better on base percentages on the team and only struck out five times.
The departure of Melina Livingston opens up a spot at third base — one that Leone might be the favorite to grab.
If the junior sees a lot of time at the hot corner in the fall, this could signal that Crowell trusts her to slide into that spot come spring.
Two other names to keep an eye on are sophomores Emily Maddock and Lauren Marcotte.
Maddock can play all over, and if she’s moving around a lot in the fall, that could potentially mean Crowell wants to use her in a utility role in 2022.
If Maddock hits well in the coming weeks, she should see plenty of time next season, given she can run well too.
Marcotte, who made 11 starts last year, gives Crowell another option on the infield. Outside of Morrison, Marcote is the only other player with shortstop experience, even if it is limited.
Getting Marcote reps at short in the fall could be important for depth reasons in 2022.
First look at newcomers
Crowell was hired late in summer 2020. Given the timing, she wasn’t able to bring in her first recruiting class until this year. This fall will be the first time anyone gets a look at what the coach is building in Happy Valley.
According to Extra Inning Softball, the highest ranked player of the incoming recruits is infielder Maddie Gordon.
Gordon was a multisport athlete, and everything indicates she has the natural ability to play at this level. Her older sister Kate Gordon was a pivotal part of James Madison’s Cinderella run in last summer’s Women’s College World Series.
This fall could reveal whether Gordon is ready to see the field right away or if there are some kinks in her game that need to be worked out.
The class is rounded out by infielder Courtney Eyler, outfielder Lydia Coleman,and left-handed pitcher and outfielder Lydia Spalding — and all four freshmen were named Premier Girls Fastpitch All-Americans.
Out of all the signees, Spalding may be the most intriguing of the bunch. She pitched and played the field in high school, and it’ll be interesting to see how she’s utilized this fall.
If she can prove her pitching ability, there might be a spot in the rotation for her right away.
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