Poppe propels Softball to another series win

Greg Habeeb

Villanova has a new strikeout queen.

On a weekend homestand against Providence (10-20, 4-9 Big East), which featured three one-run games and two ‘Nova wins, it was junior pitcher Kate Poppe who shone brightest for the Wildcats (21-22, 8-7 Big East).

Poppe tossed 19 innings over the course of two days, allowing only a pair of earned runs while striking out 22 Lady Friars. It was strikeout number 10, however, that was the most meaningful. Poppe started the eighth inning of the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader by blowing away senior first baseman Kristie Dederick for her 719th career strikeout, breaking the Villanova record previously held by Keri Stoller.

“Kate’s one of the top pitchers I’ve had, if not the top pitcher I’ve had in the program,” Wildcats head coach Maria DiBernardi said of her ace. “I don’t think anyone will ever catch her strikeout record.”

Poppe claimed that closing in on the record was not distracting. In fact, the Downingtown, Pa. native indicated that the chase improved her concentration.

“It was actually kind of motivating I think,” Poppe said. “Instead of thinking ‘oh I can’t drop this, I can’t blow this lead this inning’ I was thinking like ‘Oh, I’m going to strike this girl out’ and get one more closer. It was kind of good to take it one batter at a time.”

Poppe finished the contest with 13 strikeouts in 10 innings, although the Friars took game one, 2-1, thanks to an RBI double by Dederick in the top of the tenth inning.

The Wildcats bounced back in game two later that afternoon, thanks to timely hitting by freshman infielder Dana Morris.

Morris’ RBI single in the bottom of the sixth gave ’Nova a 5-4 lead, and Poppe came on in relief to slam the door shut in the final frame.

It was Poppe’s second save of the season. She also added two more strikeouts in her sole inning of work.

Villanova took the rubber match of the homestand on Sunday afternoon, once again in dramatic fashion. The Wildcats tied the score at one in the bottom of the sixth before winning the game in extra innings. Freshman outfielder Tianah Hathaway singled up the middle to begin the frame, and later scored on a fielder’s choice that resulted in a bang-bang play at the plate.

Hathaway managed to slide underneath the tag, and Villanova walked-off with an exciting 2-1 victory.

’Nova struggled in close games last season, losing 11 one run games. This season they are only 6-8 in such situations, though there is a confidence that was absent before.

“This group of kids, they were young last year so they were more seasoned this year,” DiBernardi said.

“This year they’re very slow and steady. They keep their composure under pressure, and they have the confidence because they know that they’re going to score eventually.”

Taking two out of three from the struggling Lady Friars has put the Wildcats in excellent position to make post season play. As of Sunday, Villanova is third in the Big East as the team enters the stretch run.

’Nova has only six games remaining on its conference schedule, all of which are against the two teams ahead of them in the standings: DePaul and St. John’s, the latter of which has yet to lose in Big East play.

“If we can grab three out of six from DePaul and St. John’s we’ll be sitting in a good spot,” DiBernardi said. “It’s nice to not have to sit at home and count who wins and who loses. We control our own destiny.”

Poppe echoed her coach’s statements about the autonomous nature of this season’s stretch run.

“Our fate is in our control,” she said. “We’re just going out there to win the next game.”

Both DiBernardi and Poppe cited that the team had momentum and was playing well as reasons why Villanova is looking to do some damage in tournament play this season.

They are not necessarily wrong either. After a slow start, the ’Cats are playing at a higher level than they have in a few seasons. They are 12-5 in their last 17 games, including a six-game winning streak from April 6 to April 11.

The Wildcats’ improved performance is partly a result of the offense stepping up, but also a partly due to Poppe’s continued growth and development as a pitcher.

 Poppe, like the rest of the team, struggled out of the gate. However, she has hit her stride and is back to doing what she does best: destroying opposing lineups.

While Poppe’s continued development and dominance on the mound is a product of plenty of on-field work, her greatest strides this season have come not physically but psychologically.

“I think, mentally, I’ve grown a lot,” Poppe said of her progress. “The mental game is what really drives me through the season. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs the past couple years, so just like getting back out there and getting better mentally and working through the tough times, that’s been my biggest change.”

DiBernardi also noticed how Poppe has matured as a player as well as how her trust in her teammates has grown.

“She’s been through a little bit of a tough time earlier in the season, but she’s been able to bounce back and she really has it under control now,” DiBernardi said. “She knows it’s not all on her now. She can do her part and the team is going to do their part.”

Poppe’s improved mentality was on display during Sunday’s game. She did not have her best stuff, perhaps due to the heavy workload from the previous day.  The Lady Friars managed to place their first five leadoff hitters on base, and threatened to score throughout the game’s early stages.

Yet Poppe held firm and battled through those initial struggles, getting stronger as the game went along. Providence’s lone baserunner in the final three innings was due to an infield single, and in the blink of an eye Poppe suddenly looked every bit as dominant as she had the previous day.

Even when Poppe is not at her best, she still has the ability to gut through and mow down hitters.

“She’s just a warrior,” DiBernardi said.

Improved offense or not, if the Wildcats want to make noise in the Big East Tournament they’re going to have to rely on Poppe’s arm.

This season, Poppe is finally in a place where she can excel under that pressure.