The NCAA Division I softball tournament was supposed to have begun last weekend.
Odds are it would have included the Virginia Tech team.
But the nationally ranked Hokies’ season was cut short in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The good news for the Hokies is that they should be just as good next year. All but one regular is set to return.
“I’m excited about next year and who we have returning,” Tech second-year coach Pete D’Amour said. “I hurt [about this year] for the kids, especially Olivia [Lattin, the team’s lone senior].... But we get the troops back together and we get to try it again next year.”
Hokies ace Keely Rochard and No. 2 starting pitcher Kaylee Hewitt will be back. Tech ranked second in the ACC in ERA (1.63).
The Hokies led the ACC in batting (.324) this year. Eight of the nine regulars in the batting order are set to return.
“It’s got the potential to be a Murderer’s Row of sorts,” D’Amour said.
When the season came to a sudden halt, the Hokies were on track to make the NCAA field for the second straight season. They were 21-4 overall, including three wins over ranked foes, and off to a 3-0 start in ACC play.
“As the season rolled on, we just kept getting better and better,” D’Amour said. “We were getting toward everybody clicking on all cylinders and the rug was pulled.”
Virginia Tech finished No. 16 in the national coaches poll.
If the Hokies had been deemed one of the top 16 teams by the NCAA tournament selection committee on Selection Sunday, they would have hosted an NCAA regional last weekend for the first time. They might have won a regional for the first time since 2008.
Tech was not ranked to begin this season, but that should be the case in the 2021 preseason polls.
“We proved this year that Virginia Tech is on the map,” D’Amour said. “People are going to gun for us now.”
The ace of last year’s 47-win team, 2019 ACC pitcher of the year Carrie Eberle, transferred to Oklahoma State last summer.
That did not turn out to be a problem. After making the all-ACC first team last year, Rochard was better this year.
The junior went 15-3 with a 1.52 ERA, 183 strikeouts and 24 walks in 120 innings in the abbreviated season, earning first-team All-America honors from Softball America.
“Keely threw all three games against Virginia, and she was better Sunday than she was on Friday,” D’Amour said. “It shows that … she really couldn’t have too many innings.
“We would’ve liked to have seen how far that could have taken us.”
Rochard led Division I in wins and strikeouts and tied for the Division I lead in shutouts (seven).
Rochard, who already stymied hitters with her riseball and change-up, became more comfortable throwing her dropball this year.
“Nobody [as a hitter] can stay on one pitch,” she said. “I can throw you all drops in one at-bat and then the next at-bat I can throw you all rises. And then I can throw a change-up in the mix.”
When Softball America unveiled its rankings of the nation’s top 100 players at season’s end, the website rated Rochard No. 14.
Two other Hokies also made the list. Third baseman Kelsey Bennett, who hit .368 this year, checked in at No. 71. Right fielder Jayme Bailey (.385) was No. 81.
Other regulars of note set to return include Meredith Slaw (.409), Kelsey Brown (.378), Maddi Banks (.340) and Mackenzie Lawter (.340).
Olivia Lattin is the one regular who will not be back.
The NCAA Division I Council decided in late March to give Division I spring-sports athletes another year of eligibility to make up for the early end to their seasons.
But D’Amour said Lattin, a fifth-year senior who started at second base, has decided not to use her extra year. Lattin, who hit .212 this year, graduated this month.
“The … part that stings the most … is losing Liv,” Rochard said. “She was the best role model.”
D’Amour said he would have made it work with his scholarship budget if Lattin had wanted to return.
Michigan transfer Morgan Overaitis could succeed Lattin at second base. She announced in late April that she was transferring to Tech. She hit .277 as a sophomore this year, when she played in 20 games and started 14.
D’Amour signed six recruits last fall.
Cameron Fagan, a shortstop from a Florida high school, is the daughter of former San Francisco 49ers defensive end Kevin Fagan. Two of her sisters played softball for Arkansas. Another sister, Sami, is a Tech graduate assistant who played for Missouri.
Another signee of note is Emma Ritter, an outfielder from a Maryland high school.
“She will probably be one of the fastest kids on our team next year,” D’Amour said.
The class also includes pitcher Mac Osborne, who led Richlands to the Class 2 state title last year.
“I’ve seen her strike a lot of kids out,” D’Amour said.