Softball Looks to Defend Big East Title


Courtesy of Villanova Athletics

Softball won its first Big East Championship last season with an all-time best 15-2 record in conference play.

Meghann Morhardt, Co-Sports Editor

Following the first Big East title in program history, the Villanova women’s softball team has high expectations entering the 2022 campaign. The Wildcats went 37-15 overall in 2021, including 15-2 in Big East play, marking a new program high for conference winning percentage at .882. 

In the Big East preseason coaches poll, the defending champions received six of nine first place votes, marking them as favorites to repeat their title run this year. 

“I think the biggest thing for us is we’re going to have a target on our back, which is kinda cool because I think no one really worried too much about Villanova in the past,” head coach Bridget Orchard said. “We also understand, and I talked to them about it, but it’s just a preview and it doesn’t mean anything, it’s just based off of last year’s team. This year’s team needs to work to maintain that. It’s an awesome honor and they deserve that recognition, but at the same time, it doesn’t really matter where you start, it’s where you finish.” 

The past two years have been unusual to say the least and the team, like many others, experienced unique challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 season was cut short just two weeks before the team was scheduled to begin Big East play, following two big upsets against #23 Baylor and #9 Florida State on the road in early season tournaments. Having this success and opportunity slip away so quickly served as prime motivation for last season’s success. 

“I think for us a big thing was revenge,” graduate pitcher Paige Rauch said. “We lost [in the tournament] our first year here, my sophomore year, and we went through that Covid season where we were upsetting top 25 teams, and then we didn’t get to go play Big East and potentially win the tournament, so I think last season was just incredible. We didn’t know if we were gonna play either so just being able to play, waking up early for the testing, it just made it all worth it in the end. Just brought us closer together as a team too.”

Rauch and her teammates used that determination to cruise through Big East play despite all of the challenges. They had a few obstacles throughout the season, with close contacts and teammates testing positive, and Rauch even recounted a mid-game scare. Because of the constant traveling and five-game weekends, the Wildcats dealt with early morning COVID-19 tests that would determine their fate going into the next game. 

“It was just something that, as an athlete, just added a little bit more stress and anxiety,” Rauch said of the constant testing. “But at the end of the day, winning the championship, it’s like, I’ll take that stress and anxiety any day if we’re going home with a championship and a ring.”

The community within Villanova Athletics was key to the success of the team, with Rauch and her teammates leaning on each other and fellow athletes, while Orchard relied on her colleagues for support through the unprecedented challenges of last season. 

“It has helped me a ton to have my colleagues here just to know they’re going through the same thing,” Orchard said. “Everybody’s dealing with it in different ways, but I think for me, it’s been huge to have the Villanova family supporting us. We’re helping each other, just explaining to each other what we’re going through. And, I think that’s been good for our student athletes, you know and they room with they’re friends [who are] a lot of other athletes on campus. So, they’re kind of all in it together.” 

With the pandemic still presenting a myriad of challenges, this season will no doubt have its ups and downs as well, but Rauch is confident that the team has the necessary experience and pieces to perform at the same level of success. 

“Definitely bringing that into this year,” Rauch said of the momentum the team gained last season. “[Keep] doing the same things over, obviously the situation still feels fluid, everything is crazy. Just continuing to work hard and play every game like it’s our last one, and work hard for that post season.”

The heartbreaks in 2019 and 2020 were major motivation factors for Rauch when deciding to come back for a graduate year. After following Orchard to Villanova from Fordham when she was hired in 2018, Rauch feels that she has not used all of her potential and knew that she needed another year to do so.  

“I used to say that transferring here was the easiest decision I’ve ever made, but I definitely think taking my fifth year was definitely a lot easier,” Rauch said. “[My decision] was actually made quite early. It was right after the NCAA announced eligibility in 2020. It was like once again, the feeling of we just upset Florida state and Baylor, and now I want to go beat other people. Just getting that full four years of college softball.”

The team returns 16 players from the 2021 roster led by two fifth-year veterans in Rauch and Angela Giampolo. Giampolo scored 39 runs last season while recording a .962 fielding percentage. The second baseman currently sits in second for most runs scored in school history with 136, just 20 away from the all-time record of 156, held by 2018 graduate Brittany Husk. 

Rauch joins Giampolo in the record books, holding career and single season records in home runs, on base percentage, batting average and slugging percentage. Last year, Rauch finished with a team-high .417 batting average, 13 doubles and nine home runs. She was the first player in Big East history to sweep Pitcher and Player of the Year in the same season with a 21-4 record, 2.12 era, 189 strikeouts and a program record nine shutouts to back up her hitting success. 

“It’s an honor,” Rauch said when asked about the accolades. “I think it’s just consistently working with them and trying to balance, like if I didn’t have a really good day on the mound, maybe work on pitching a little bit more that practice or I didn’t hit, well, let me stay, you know, an extra hour and hit off a tee. I think it’s really just all about balance and staying consistent and not getting comfortable or content with where I’m at now.” 

Rauch and Giampolo were not the only standout members of the lineup last season. They were joined by junior Ally Jones, and seniors Ryan Henry and Megan Kern. Henry was a First Team All-Big East selection last year, while Jones and Kern were selected to the second team. The catcher duo of Henry and Jones served as reliable support for Rauch behind the plate, as Henry finished the season with a perfect fielding percentage and Jones followed close behind at .984.

“Everybody was really working for each other,” Orchard said. “It was the first time honestly I think our team really came together and had one common goal, and that was to win. We really had like eight or nine different people stepping up in different ways. We had a lot of home runs, a lot of runs scored, but even big defensive plays or baserunning that really went well” 

The Wildcats also welcome six freshmen to the roster this season. Given the large group of experienced upperclassmen, it may be hard for them to break into the lineup, but Orchard has high hopes for one newcomer in particular. 

“Ava Franz, an incoming freshman, she’s played like every position, I think, on the field other than pitch,” Orchard said. “Right now, we’re asking a lot of her, and it’s going to be a lot of pressure and stress on her to perform right away, but it’s also really exciting. I know she’s excited to play with Paige and Angela, you know, normally when we recruited her, they would’ve been gone but she has that opportunity to take advantage of learning from Angela in the infield, and learning from Paige from an offensive standpoint.” 

The Wildcats open their season with four tournaments on the road, two in North Carolina and one each in Florida and Georgia, before returning home to start Big East play in March. Notable non-conference opponents include Duke, Florida and Louisville, all three historically successful programs, but Rauch and her teammates are up for the challenge. 

“I’m excited to play ranked teams,” Rauch said. “We didn’t really have the opportunity to do that [last year]. It’s been two years since we played ranked teams. We got to play Liberty of Notre Dame last year, but it’s really fun when you upset them. At the same time, it’s fun when you do get your butt kicked every now and then because it just makes you feel more mentally prepared for conference.”

In Big East play, Villanova will have to face its two toughest opponents, UConn and DePaul, on the road. The Blue Demons (first in 2021) and Huskies (third) were picked to finish second and third, respectively. The ‘Cats went 2-1 against DePaul and swept the regular season series with the Huskies last year. They went on to beat UConn twice on its home field to secure the conference title. 

Orchard and her squad have all the right pieces to repeat their conference championship and make a further run in the NCAA tournament, but it will all come down to execution. 

“I just think our offense should be through the roof and again, on paper, we look really good,” Orchard said. “We talk to them about it too, on paper, it’s there, you know, but can we go out and can we perform?” 

I think we are fired up and excited to prove everyone right, that we deserve to be number one,” Rauch said. “Just prove everyone right, and remain number one for years to come.”