‘We have high expectations’
Assistant softball coach discusses defense, upcoming season
Last season, the Bulls were one of the worst fielding teams in the nation.
To help solve the problem, head coach Mike Ruechel brought in Riley Johnson, a former Syracuse University softball player and head coach at Division II Le Moyne College.
In an interview with The Spectrum, Johnson says that she is optimistic that the Bulls will improve defensively. It will be a tall order: in 2018, the Bulls ranked 271st in the country in team fielding percentage.
Johnson has served as an assistant coach at Hillsdale College and as the assistant director of baseball operations at Ninth Inning Baseball. She believes that her past experience will help her connect to her players.
With softball season starting Friday, Johnson has “high expectations” for her team. In the interview, she discusses defensive improvements and the importance of the fieldhouse — UB’s new indoor training facility — on the team’s success.
Our interview, lightly edited for length and style, follows below:
The Spectrum: You were brought in to coach defense. How important is that skill and how have you been working on it with the team?
Johnson: It’s super important. We talk to the girls all the time about bases. If a hitter isn’t getting to first base, we’ve done our job. If she gets to first base, we want to keep her there. We want to break it down to where we’re protecting bases, as opposed to outs or stuff like that. It’s simplified in that sense.
If you’re not giving up runs, you don’t need many to win. At the end of the day, we want to play good, crisp, clean defense, eliminate errors — throwing, fielding, all of that — and then go from there.
TS: The team starts off the season playing two months on the road. How do you prepare your players mentally for that?
J: It’s a little tough. The fieldhouse makes it much better. The fact that outfielders can get balls off of the bat, can work on their tracking, that infielders are getting better or true hops, balls coming off the turf, instead of the gym floor — the fieldhouse has prepared us more for the start of the season.
Being on the road, these girls are used to it. Playing up here, playing in Buffalo, we talked about the travel, the demand on it. We talked to them about keeping their bodies healthy and getting their sleep and working with them on all those levels.
TS: You’ve only been here post-fieldhouse, so you haven’t seen what it was like before, but how has this space helped the team in training?
J: It’s crucial. I’ve heard about the indoor stuff. I’ve had friends and family that have played here, so they have gone through being in the triple gym. The fact that our girls can get a live infield, a live outfield, that they can make throws, and that they aren’t just getting that in the first game — it’s huge.
The fieldhouse has not only elevated their game, but it will continue to elevate our program. It’s been a great asset to everything.
TS: Pitching is one of the most important parts of the sport. You have four pitchers on the roster, all of whom are freshmen. What have you seen from them as a group?
J: They’re working hard. They’re going to have their freshman ups-and-downs, but the last couple of weeks we’ve seen a ton of improvement. We went live with them, and they were a different staff.
They’re learning the strike zone, they’re learning how to throw to hitters. You kind of say in travel ball or before you get to college, pitchers are throwers. And then in college, they become pitchers. So that’s just that next level part of the game.
We’re going to have our moments, because they are freshmen. But it’s only growth. They can only continue to grow and be positive.
TS: Have you named an opening day starter yet?
J: We haven’t. Our staff is a pitching staff. That’s kind of the trend softball is going more toward as opposed to using one pitcher, one arm all year.
Basically, it’s if one kid gets the ball to start in the first game, the next one’s going to get it to start in the second game. That’s how we like it. They’re working with each to complement each other with that.
TS: You played at Syracuse. What did you learn there that you have tried to instill in your players?
J: I learned about the pace of the game. Obviously, there are drills and things that you learn, but just the overall pace of the game. I think in freshman year you’re not used to that, so just trying to instill that this game is a lot faster, balls are hit a lot harder, plays have to be made quicker, arms are better.
So the pace of things, and that level of play you have to increase every day. But then on the other hand, slowing the game down. Understanding when you have time so you’re not rushing things. It’s more of the mental aspect of the game that I take from my playing days.
Justin Weiss is the senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com