VERMILLION, S.D. | With a full month left in the college softball season, South Dakota has already surpassed its wins total from last season.
Things are looking up on the Vermillion campus as the Coyotes enter today’s home opener with a 21-11 overall mark. The doubleheader with North Dakota begins at 2 p.m. this afternoon at Nygard Field.
Coinciding with the strong team start has been the production of senior pitcher Erica Denney, a former two-time all-stater at North High.
Denney is coming off back-to-back complete game shutouts as the Coyotes took two games in a three-game series at IUPUI. That followed a three-game sweep of Western Illinois as South Dakota has opened the Summit League with a 5-1 mark.
“We started off really well as a team,” said Denney. “The sweep against Western Illinois, some people came up in big situations when we needed runs and that has a lot to do with our success in the Summit League.”
Since a rocky outing in the first conference game at Western Illinois, Denney has given up just two earned runs over her last 21 innings. She earned both victories in the series against IUPUI with a one-hitter and a four-hitter, striking out eight in each game.
“We really feel awesome where we are at,” said Denney. “The difference this year is we all have been together for about a year now. We all settled down and really communicated, and we trust each other as teammates.”
Denney is 12-4 on the season with a 2.17 earned run average and the righthander has allowed three or fewer earned runs in 14 of her 18 outings this spring.
Denney’s 12 victories have pushed her career total at South Dakota to 28, good for seventh on the career charts. After pitching just 56 and 69.1 innings, respectively, in her first two seasons as a Coyote, she compiled a 10-18 mark as a junior with 165 innings and a 3.47 earned run average.
“She is healthy,” said South Dakota’s sixth-year head coach Amy Klyse. “If she was healthy like this as a freshman and sophomore.... she has changed her game, mentally, it comes with age. It’s something you can’t have until you’ve been here, you’ve seen struggles, you’ve seen success.
“She is healthy, she is in a complete different mindset than she has ever been in before.”
A healthy Denney has turned into the ace of the Coyotes' pitching staff, which includes senior Missy Blackburn (3-1, 3.28 ERA) and freshman Madison Frain (5-6, 3.23 ERA).
“She has the potential and the build and the tools to be where she is at,” said Klyse. “This is her year, definitely living up to her potential.”
South Dakota resumes Summit League play this weekend with a three-game series against in-state rival South Dakota State (9-18, 1-5) in Vermillion. Friday’s doubleheader starts at 2 p.m. while Saturday’s single game begins at noon.
A long 11-game homestand will then conclude with conference series against Fort Wayne (April 12-13) and Omaha (April 16-17).
Omaha is one of two teams sitting at 3-0 in the Summit League. However, the Mavericks, 25-4, are ineligible for the conference tournament while playing their first season as a Division I school.
The winner of the Summit League tournament garners an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament -- something that is on the minds of both Denney and Klyse.
“It’s such a cool opportunity to get a chance to get to the tournament,” said Denney. “We talk about it every day, it drives us to play better and win every game.”
“That’s the sole motivator in itself (the NCAA tournament),” said Klyse. “That’s why this year is a little bit different, knowing that that opportunity is there keeps our kids motivated.”