Last February, Alexis Lucyshyn was at the top of her game.
Lucyshyn, a then-freshman pitcher for the softball team, was the club leader in earned-run average and was coming off consecutive dominant performances on the mound. She was primed to lead the Bulls into conference play.
But then, in the blink of an eye, that all changed.
The Bulls’ season was cancelled in early March, as yet another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would take 11 months — and countless runs in the Calgary, Alberta snow — before Lucyshyn returned to the mound.
“It was very tough to see the season cancelled,” Lucyshyn said. “Especially coming from Canada to such a big school to play softball and to have that taken away was definitely hard on me and everyone on the team.”
The Bulls returned to action on Feb. 20 and, as might be expected after a prolonged break, were rusty, dropping all eight games they’ve played, some — like a 16-0 loss to No. 12 Louisiana-Lafayette on Feb. 26 — by large margins. But despite starting the 2021 campaign with eight consecutive losses, players and coaches say they were able to learn something from and even compete with some of the nation’s best teams.
“The competition is as tough as it gets but it’s honestly making us better,” Rachel Steffan, a freshman from nearby Williamsville, said. “It makes our team better, helps us grow our relationships with each other, and allows us to earn the trust of one another.”
The Bulls began their season in Conway, SC, where they took on East Carolina, Coastal Carolina and Saint Francis. They then partook in the Louisiana-Lafayette/LSU Tournament, where they faced Louisiana-Lafayette, No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 13 LSU.
The competition was so stiff and the Bulls so rusty that UB was shut out in three straight games from Feb. 21-26. Only the Feb. 21 game against Saint Francis — a 3-0 loss — was decided by fewer than five runs.
Head coach Mike Ruechel says his team’s final record doesn’t tell the full story.
“We got a whole lot of positives out of it even though the results weren’t in our favor,” said Ruechel. “Some of our pitchers only had a few bullpens so we had to limit them. We didn’t get to practice as much as we wanted so we’re just a little bit behind.”
Cold weather in the Queen City during the early months of the softball season makes practicing difficult, although the Murchie Family Fieldhouse — completed in April 2019 — has made things easier for the Bulls.
But the cold weather means that the Bulls play their first 18 games on the road, either in South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida or Ohio. That experience presents a mixed bag for players.
“It is a huge factor because you have to constantly worry about keeping your hands warm whether it’s handwarmers in our gloves and/or back pockets or huddling around the dugout heaters every chance we get,” Steffan said. “Playing in the heat is a little nicer and it’s definitely helping us get back into the groove of things.”
Through eight games, only three players — senior utility player Alicia Peters, sophomore infielder Toni Cunningham and freshman infielder Ally Sobaszek — have a batting average of .250 or above. Concerningly, four players with at least 12 at bats are hitting below .200.
Peters, who has appeared in every game since 2019, leads the team with a .300 batting average and is one of three players to hit a home run this season. The Chico, CA native is also second on the team in putouts, with 20.
Ruechel has emphasized player development, especially behind the plate.
“We try to focus heavily on the development,” Ruechel said. “Our goal is to advance each athlete to a new level. Then, once they’re comfortable with the level they’re at, we move up. Bottom line: hitting is a continuous process.”
Ruechel believes in giving his players as many in-game reps as possible, to help them get back in the groove. Fourteen of the team’s 23 players have gotten at bats and five of the team’s seven pitchers have pitched at least one inning this season.
“Some of the kids just aren’t ready yet because of the long pause we had,” Ruechel said. “We’d put one in for a couple of innings and then another to close out the game just to get some work and reps in. The plan right now is to utilize as many as we can to get their arms in shape so they’re ready to go come MAC time.”
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Hunter Skoczylas is the assistant sports editor for The Spectrum. In his free time, he can be found looking up random sports statistics, posting memes on Twitter, and dedicating his Sunday afternoons to watching the Buffalo Bills.