Inside the Dugout: Jexx Varner
Robert Morris softball is off to its best start in program history, and head coach Jexx Varner has had a front-row seat to it all.
February 27, 2022
Robert Morris softball is off to its hottest start in program history, cruising through their Carolina invitationals with a 9-1 record, and head coach Jexx Varner has watched his team roll in the early portion of their season.
After a season where the team finished with a 25-19 record and a 20-14 mark in Horizon League play, they are looking to make their mark on the conference again and make it to the NCAA Regionals.
Last year, the Colonials ran into a brick wall in the postseason tournament, facing top-seeded Youngstown State and Oakland, getting swept out after facing two of the best pitchers in the conference in Sydney Campbell (Oakland) and Elle Buffenbarger (YSU).
Varner believes the experience of the tournament galvanized the group for this year.
“It helped them believed they could win, and in at one point having five freshmen on the field in a conference tournament game, it helped us realize it wasn’t too big [of a stage] for us,” Varner said. “We ran into the two best pitchers in the conference. That is ultimately what it came down to. It’s not the result we wanted… we just didn’t get it done that day.”
Despite the odds stacked against them, the team showed remarkable fight, getting to the final out of that elimination game against Oakland with the tying run in scoring position.
“We fought back with elimination on the line,” Varner said. “That’s the kind of energy they’ve been able to take from that year. It made them hungry. They’re not satisfied at all making that statement, they’re hungry for more.
The Colonials received a big freshman class and two transfers in Meadow Sacadura and Taylor Rhinehart, who joined her sister Rachael on the roster.
The newcomers are shining early on for RMU, with Sacadura batting .346 and receiving pitches extremely well, Rhinehart performing on both sides of the ball, Alaina Koutsogiani providing a steady presence in the leadoff spot and Anna Resnik boasting a .480 average in her first season.
Varner mentioned the presence of new players on the roster, praising the abilities of each of the players who have impacted the team.
“It’s those new faces that have really stepped up. They’re a huge reason why we are where we are.”
The hitters are batting .276 through 10 games, but equally impressive is the 2.40 ERA the pitchers have through those games, which Varner credits to the ‘next pitcher up’ mentality the coaching staff has instilled in the bullpen.
Varner has seen the Colonials play a variety of different games through this ten-game stretch, including complete-game shutouts, mercy rules, extra-inning affairs and 14-12 shootouts.
Having differences in the way games play out as a coach is stressful for some, but Varner is relieved of that stress, never truly feeling out of a game when watching his team.
“The girls joke all the time that they are giving [us coaches] grey hair,” Varner said. “What we talk about a lot is that championship programs can win in a 1-0 ballgame as well as a 14-12 fight. We showed that in our last two games. You need to win games like that… to realize we could play an ugly game and win. I think that was big for the team.”
A talented coaching staff also supports Varner in the dugout, including Sara Pelegreen-Corey, Bonnie Pierson and former player Natalie Higgins. In her senior season in 2021, she batted .412 and was named to the All-Horizon League First Team.
Varner praised the staff for working with the players to hammer a never-say-die mentality in their gameplay.
“One of the ongoing conversations that we have had as a team so far is that at no point have we felt down and out,” he said. “To know that we are three outs away from possibly losing a game and at no point did we ever feel like we weren’t going to [come back], they’re showing [that mentality] in all phases. We can come back because we are talented enough to do that.”
After dispensing Ball State, Albany, Towson and host Winthrop in South Carolina last week, the team embarks on a cross-country journey to the Pacific Northwest, taking on Portland State, Oregon State, no. 5 Washington and Seattle.
Softball will head out west for the first time since 2016, when they took part in the DeMarini Desert Classic in Nevada, facing Oregon State, Utah, Nevada, UNLV and BYU.
It will also mark a homecoming for the Rhineharts and Horizon League Player of the Week Charlotte Grover, all of whom are from Woodinville, Washington, a 27-minute drive away from Seattle.
We fought back with elimination on the line. That’s the kind of energy they’ve been able to take from that year. It made them hungry. They’re not satisfied at all making that statement, they’re hungry for more.”
— Jexx Varner on the team's mentality after their tournament run fell short in 2021
Varner knows the team is prepared for this test, which will have all the feeling of a regional tournament.
“Playing that level of competition, that’s where we’re looking to go,” he said. “[All these teams] are regional teams, and Washington is top-six in the country right now. It’s another layer to the schedule from this past weekend. Those are teams we want to go out and face. If you want to be at a regional, you need to create a regional atmosphere at some point in your schedule.”
As the team comes back for conference play, the expectation is nothing less than how they finished last season.
“The expectation is nothing less than how we did last season,” Varner said. “We believe in the team we’ve put together, they believe in themselves, and this start has really helped that. We have a team here that can compete and win [the Horizon League]. This team is capable of winning a championship, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”
They will have a doubleheader with Portland State on Friday, and if any team is equipped to handle the test of the Pacific Northwest, it’s Jexx Varner’s squad.