The 2018 edition of the North Carolina softball team has struggled to find a consistent groove to open the year. After going 3-1 in Florida at UCF's season opening tournament, UNC dropped a midweek road game to Elon and finished the ACC/Big Ten challenge 2-2 after getting shutout 6-0 by Wisconsin on Sunday.
"We can only go up from today," head coach Donna Papa said postgame after the loss. "I told them, 'It's not about that we didn't win, it's about how we competed.' I just felt like we needed better execution."
Heading into a road contest with South Carolina on Tuesday, and the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic this coming weekend, the Tar Heels will need to find their consistency fast if they don't want a slow start to bite them come tournament time in April.
Here are five things I think about this year's squad after their first nine games:
1) Brittany Pickett is still the star she was a season ago
Coming off a stellar freshman campaign can be difficult for any player. Teams now know who you are, and they may have additional scouting on you that they didn't have a season ago. Natural swings of luck can also lead to a reduced production from a top player.
But after UNC's first two weekends, the 2017 ACC Freshman of the Year has picked up right where she's left off. And she might be even better than she was a season ago.
Pickett been stellar in the batter's box, where's she's taken over the cleanup hitter role from the graduated Kendra Lynch to great success. Her early season slashline of .367/.424/.567 is impressive, particularly the high batting average, and she leads the team in RBIs with eight.
But her true value to this year's team comes in the pitcher's circle, where she's been lights out all season. Pickett is a perfect 5-0 to start the year, with a 1.71 ERA and 36 strikeouts across 45 innings pitched. Always a fast thrower, Pickett appears to have worked on her off-speed stuff in the offseason, and she had several nice moments of fooling batters with it throughout the weekend.
"We've shouldered a lot of stuff on her," Papa said. "And I've told the girls you can't expect her to strike everybody out and be the one all the time."
Pickett did struggle a little bit on Sunday, giving up three runs in her fifth relief appearance of the season, something Papa chalked up to fatigue from pitching in her fourth game in three days. But when she's rested, there's no one better for the Tar Heels to turn to when they need to get outs.
2) UNC hasn't found a consistent second pitcher yet
For Pickett to be most effective, the Tar Heels are going to have to get quality innings out of the rest of their pitching staff to keep Pickett rested and ready for high-leverage situations. Both Katie Grace Olinger and Hannah Nommensen have shown flashes of being that second pitcher, but neither has been consistent enough to seize the role.
Olinger had good outings down in Florida, but she's taken the loss in three games so far this season and has only gotten past the third inning once in five starts. Nommensen, meanwhile, pitched effectively in her first appearance of the season on Sunday, but personal defensive mistakes put her in a jam she couldn't get out of.
"We have a young pitching staff, and unfortunately, Brittany has had to throw a lot," Papa said. "She's a very very good pitcher, but we're very young at that position. We're gonna grow, but we've got to grow fast."
The Tar Heels need either Olinger or Nommensen to assert themselves as their second option in the next couple of weeks to ensure Pickett is at full strength. If one of them steps up, this team will be tough to handle from the opponent's batter's box.
3) The team's defense is top notch up the middle
Catcher, the middle infield positions and center field have been the anchor to the UNC defense early on — with a combination of great skill, solid fundamentals and spectacular athleticism leading the way to a great Tar Heel defensive unit.
Behind the dish, Megan Dray and Katie Bailiff have been great signal callers, keeping things in front of them while also using their arm to keep teams honest. Dray threw behind a runner against Illinois on Friday night to get a crucial second out late in the game when the Illini were threatening ("a really big plus behind the plate," Papa said), and Bailiff is quick to react to pop ups in foul territory to get easy outs for her club.
Up the middle, senior Taylor Wike and freshman Sierra Parkinson have formed a nice duo. They aren't flashy fielders, but each has solid range and a good arm, making any grounder toward the pair a routine out.
And out in center, Texas Tech transfer Kiani Ramsey has been a revelation for the Tar Heels, with lightning-fast speed and a willingness to dive giving her near unlimited range for tracking down flyballs and line drives.
"Kiani Ramsey really has been a big player in the respect her defense — those are normal plays for Kiani," Papa said. "Her maturity and her game readiness made a big difference. I knew she would do well."
4) UNC has the ability to hit but gets streaky at times, leading to poor offensive outputs
This is a team that can dominate opponents, like it did with 18 hits against the Badgers in a 9-7 win on Saturday. But it's also a team with bats that can quickly go cold, like when the Tar Heels only had five hits on Sunday and four in their 2-1 loss to Elon.
UNC's first six hitters have all been productive to start the year, with everyone besides Berlynne Delamora hitting over .300 to start the season (Delamora is hitting .077, but she has an on-base percentage of .520 thanks to drawing 10 walks). But they often have failed to string hits together, stranding a total of 71 runners on base in all of their at-bats. The bottom of the lineup often features two hitters below the .220 Mendoza line for their batting average, as well, leading to an easy set of three hitters each time through the lineup for opposing pitchers.
Papa said she wants her team to show a more consistent plan of attack at the plate, including looking to attack off-speed pitches that the team took too many of on Sunday in the loss. When her team does that, Papa said, it's shown the ability to hit well.
5) Finishing series will be key for the team's overall success
Papa said she told her team on Sunday to always view their Sunday games during the season as "Championship Sunday" to help them prepare for postseason play down the line.
"This is the time when it's important, because when you go to regionals and ACC championships, if you're in on Sundays, you're in the championship game," Papa said. "That's the way we want to think."
These Sunday games will be key for the Tar Heels' overall record throughout the season because of the way their rotation works pitching-wise. Pickett will likely start the first and final game of the team's series, meaning that Sunday game will have Pickett the least fresh. That means the Tar Heel bats will have to be alive on those days, which hasn't been the case so far. UNC has scored just three runs across three games on Sundays thus far this season, while going 1-2.
This concept will be highlighted in the Tar Heels' three-day tournament in California this coming weekend, when UNC will take on defending national champions Oklahoma in its final game of the tournament on Saturday. Papa says she knows her team can compete at that level, but things have to change from the past two Sundays to make it happen.
"We can't have games like this against the people we're coming to play next week," Papa said. "You play like that, against them, you triple the score (of our game on Sunday)."