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Improved pitching staff will smoothen Stony Brook softball’s 2024 ride

Starting pitcher Mia Haynes fires a pitch in practice on Wednesday, Jan. 24. Haynes will headline a pitching staff that is primed for a breakout 2024 campaign. BRITTNEY DIETZ/THE STATESMAN

In 2023, the Stony Brook softball team rode a top-two offense in the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) to a semifinal appearance in the conference postseason. While clawing out win after win, the Seawolves realized that they have an ace in right-handed starting pitcher Mia Haynes. With Haynes and company back for another ride — plus a new face accompanying them — the team will hope its pitching can reach the top tier to balance the whole squad out.

In its first year in the CAA, Stony Brook finished top three — mostly first or second — in just about every offensive category. Even with such a potent offense, the Seawolves finished as just the seventh seed at 29-27 overall and 10-13 in conference play. The pitching staff’s inconsistency and lack of reliable depth can be blamed for that, as it ranked just seventh out of 11 teams in the conference with a 3.66 earned run average (ERA). Their arms often set themselves up for failure, as they walked the fourth-most batters (142), which did not pair well with their .285 batting average against.

Given the runs Stony Brook will likely score due to its returning cast of hitters, head coach Megan Bryant believes that it is up to the pitching staff to take the team to the next level.

“You can’t ride one pitcher anymore,” Bryant said in an interview with The Statesman. “Our improved depth is going to be key for us, especially if we put that with our good defense and what we feel is going to be increased run production.”

Their success from inside the circle will start from the top, with Haynes looking to build on her red-hot finish. Over her final 16 outings last year, she pitched to a 1.14 ERA over 80 innings. She had a historic 2023 CAA softball tournament, breaking the conference’s record for most innings pitched (36 ⅓) in a single postseason.

Her hot final month catapulted her to 184 ⅔ innings pitched, 18 complete games and 19 wins — the most in the league. Her 3.11 ERA was good for ninth amongst qualified pitchers and her 1.54 ERA in the playoffs earned her a spot on the 2023 CAA All-Tournament Team.

Now a senior, Haynes simply needed time to mentally adjust to pitching with Stony Brook after spending her first two years with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

“I think I was a little nervous towards the beginning,” Haynes said in an interview with The Statesman. “I gained that confidence as I continued to do well, which gave me the confidence to go into each game with that mindset.”

Despite finishing fifth in the conference with 103 strikeouts, Haynes averaged only 3.9 per seven innings. She prides herself on the ability to get outs on the ground and attributes much of her success to the defense behind her.

“I think people tend to give the credit to the pitcher a lot of the time because they’re the one that gets the win,” Haynes said. “It is a team sport and I rely so much on my defense when they are able to take hits away or even make the routine plays that I feed them. That’s the difference between a win and a loss right there.”

Now that the Seawolves know they have an ace up their sleeve, they will need to see more out of their other arms. One name to look out for is right-handed pitcher Ashton Melaas — the projected second option in the rotation.

Melaas is a graduate student in her fifth year of college softball and her third at the NCAA Division I level. She spent her first two years pitching for Rock Valley College — a junior college — before transferring to Stony Brook in 2022. As the team’s third pitcher, Melaas put up a strong showing with a 3.22 ERA in 41 ⅓ innings across 13 appearances. In her first year as a full-time member of the rotation, Melaas took a step back.

It was as bumpy a ride as possible for Melaas, who allowed 25 earned runs through her first 17 innings of 2023. However, from March 16 to April 15 of last season, she had a hot streak that was almost identical to Haynes’ season-ending run. During the timeframe, Melaas appeared in 16 games and tossed 80 innings to the tune of a 1.31 ERA. The great run brought her season ERA down to 2.90, but an ugly final 11 outings ballooned it up to 3.97.

Despite the bad start and equally poor finish, Melaas still led the team with a 1.34 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) and a .274 batting average against.

For the veteran righty, much of her success will hang on her ability to hone her strengths and limit the inconsistencies that were seen last year. One of the biggest changes that she made in the offseason was her approach to preparation.

“I think it shows with the duration of the season that we have, it’s very long and it’s very strenuous on your body,” Melaas said. “Being aware of how to properly take care of yourself … I think is the best way to go about maintaining consistency throughout.”

If Melaas can pitch anywhere near her mid-March to mid-April self from 2023, she may form a nasty duo with Haynes. If she is to reach the potential that she flashed last year, it will stem from a stronger emphasis on movement and location.

“I’ve definitely worked on tunneling and lanes a lot more,” Melaas said. “I feel like the problems that I did have initially were maybe not relying on my spin so much. So I’ve been working on that more and all the things that a pitcher should be doing, spotting, spinning, control and commanding.”

The biggest change for the Seawolves staff is their newfound third option: left-handed pitcher Gabrielle Maday. She is a graduate student who joins the starting rotation after three seasons at Cornell. She currently has two years of eligibility remaining, as the Ivy League Conference canceled its 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic after 2020 was shut down for the same reason.

Across her three scattered years, Maday pitched in 45 games, starting 36 and compiling 202 ⅓ innings. In her freshman season of 2020, she made four appearances (three starts) and led the team with a 2.33 ERA in 15 innings. In 2022, she tossed a career-high 102 ⅓ innings in 22 appearances. Last year, her control improved significantly, leading to career bests in walks per seven innings (1.6), strikeouts per seven innings (4.0) and batting average against (.275). She also cut her home run total from 12 in 2022 to six in 2023.

Maday has fully embraced her groundball-heavy style of pitching while also trying to create variability to increase her strikeout totals.

“I think one of the reasons that I’ve been able to trust knowing that I can pitch to contact is because of the spin that I rely on a lot,” Maday said. “In order to get more strikeouts, we’ve been using the changeup more as a go-to pitch and trusting that earlier in counts. I’ve also been able to contrast some of my go-to pitches with up-spin so I’m showing different directions.”

Bryant believes she may be the biggest piece added to the roster this past offseason.

“Gabby brings an experienced arm; she’s lefty,” Bryant said. “She can spin it, she’s been in tough games, so that experience is going to be key. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have two lefties on staff, either.”

The other lefty Bryant alluded to was relief pitcher Maddie Male, who has still not had a full season as she enters her third year with the club. She missed all of her freshman year in 2022 with a back injury before making her debut last year and struggling to a 4.80 ERA in 23 ⅓ innings. She reinjured her back last season, ending her first official NCAA go-around in late March.

However, Bryant has been high on Male since the 2022 preseason. In her NCAA debut, Male tossed six scoreless innings, allowing just three hits and a walk while striking out a pair. She did not allow an earned run until her fourth outing of the season, and it went all downhill from there.

Bryant said that Male is “the healthiest she has ever been in her time here,” and confirmed that she will be used more as a middle reliever this year.

A potential X-factor for the pitching staff is right-handed pitcher Jordyn Fray, a freshman from Las Vegas. She attended Bishop Gorman High School, which has one of the best varsity softball programs in Nevada. She was a two-time First Team All-State selection and won three state titles there. Last year, she pitched to a 1.26 ERA in 93 innings, striking out 89 batters.

Bryant had high praise for Fray, as well.

“Jordyn’s working hard at her game and we are looking forward to her contributions — maybe sooner, maybe later,” Bryant said.

The team’s last remaining arm is right-handed relief pitcher Amanda Flynn, but she might not get as many high-leverage appearances if she is used this year. She did not play in her first two seasons before pitching in six contests last year, posting an 8.17 ERA on a .424 batting average against in just six innings.

After finally running out of pitching in the semifinals at Hofstra, Maday and the others are looking to get over the hump.

“I feel like everybody is on the same page,” Maday said. “Our goal is to win the CAA championship, so I feel that as a staff, I just want to be able to help the whole team achieve that goal for us.”

If Haynes, Melaas and Maday continue to trend upwards this year and build on their experience, Stony Brook may wind up accomplishing the goal that it set out for itself after all.

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