EAST LANSING - The 2014 Michigan State softball season was one to forget for Coach Jacquie Joseph.
The death of assistant coach Charles Fobbs in a pre-season car crash and injuries to their top two pitchers made for an emotional year, as the Spartans finished with a 12-37 record.
“Was it the worst year of my life? Yeah,” Joseph said. “It’s because, for a lot of reasons. I lost one of my very close friends who happened to be on my staff. It was incredibly difficult time, and on top of it we didn’t have a great season.”
One season later, after a successful pre-season with new assistants J.T. Gasso and Andrea Harrison and a return to good health, the team is unsurprised at their success. After a 10 game stretch that gave Michigan State (7-3) their best record since 2006, Reiser said the reward of the workouts was worth all the hours.
“We worked our butts off all fall, all preseason for this,” junior second baseman Jacquie Reiser said. “We expected this of ourselves.”
Reiser, one of the team’s most improved players, said MSU’s strong start is because of new assistant coach Gasso’s offseason workout program.
“Every Monday and Friday we would meet at Duffy at 6:30 in the morning,” she said. “(The workouts) were extremely tough. They were mentally draining, physically draining and sometimes you just wanted to stop and quit.”
It all culminated in a mini-triathlon at the end of summer consisting of swimming, CrossFit workouts and a 2.5-mile run.
Redshirt freshman pitcher Kristina Zalewski sees how their efforts are paying off.
“We put in a lot of work this fall,” Zalewski said. “So we know what we’re capable of so and we can just go out there and do it.”
If we could do that, we can overcome any obstacle. We’re down two runs in a game and we can get those runs back and win.”
Zalewski missed last season with an undisclosed injury after only pitching 33 1/3 innings. She’s off to a great start this year with a 4-1 record and a .65 ERA in eight appearances.
Joseph said she’s starting to see her potential on the mound.
“I think we’re starting to see what she’s capable of,” she said. “I think that until you go through a lot more adversity we don’t really know for sure.”
Zalewski was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week, the first Spartan in nearly three years to receive that weekly honor.
Reiser said Zalewski makes batters “look like fools” while pitching.
“She’s got this change-up and (batters) literally look terrible when they try and swing at it because they whiff every time,” she said.
Zalewski doesn’t feel the pressure to perform with the confidence the team has had so far early in the season.
“I know that my team is going to back me up, we’re going to score the runs we’re going to score,” Zalewski said. “I think we know what we can do, we put in a lot of work this fall so we know what we’re capable of and we can just go out there and do it.”
Joseph said one of the strengths of the team is its pitching staff.
“(Zalewski’s) not the only pitcher,” she said. “The other players are capable of similar performances, they just aren’t quite as far along as she is right now.”
Redshirt sophomore pitcher Dani Goranson is also back, after missing last season due to a shoulder injury.
“I think we’re off to the start we could have if our kids were healthy,” Joseph said.
Joseph preached consistency for the Spartans to maintain this success.
“I think we all need to be a little more consistent in our performances,” Joseph said. “Showing consistency through the whole weekend in each of your performances is something you mature into.”
Goranson is 1-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four appearances. Rounding out the rotation is an improved sophomore in Valerie Kaff who is 1-1 in five appearances with a 4.40 ERA and freshman Bridgette Rainey who is also 1-1 in three appearances with a 5.53 ERA.
Reiser said the differences in pitching styles them is a big advantage for Michigan State.
“They are phenomenal pitchers,” she said. “Last year, we were down to two pitchers. So now that we have four, they’re all totally different pitchers, which is great. They all complement each other greatly.”
Joseph knows the team is still growing, but said their success all comes down to pitching.
“We’re still definitely a work in progress,” she said. “We’re moving in the right direction and I think if we stay healthy and we pitch it the way we’ve been pitching I think we’ve got a chance to have a great season.”
Joseph remains optimistic about the future of the team in the early going and thinks they can contend for a Big Ten championship if things go their way.
“We have to stay healthy, we have to continue to get better,” she said. “A lot of unanswered questions yet. It’s just 10 quick games into a 56 game schedule. We’re certainly not getting ahead of ourselves in any way.”