The defending Southern Ivy League Division champions, the Cornell softball team begins the 2012 campaign in hopes of playing for the title in the championship series for the third straight year. The Red (12-11, 3-1 Ivy League) began conference play against Harvard (15-8, 3-1) on March 30 and Dartmouth (7-12, 0-4 Ivy) on March 31. The Red split the doubleheader against Harvard, the same opponent it lost to in the finals last year, but came back to sweep Dartmouth the next day.
Cornell continues its march through the Ivy League as the team travels to Brown (3-13, 0-2) and Yale (7-15, 1-3) on April 6-7. The Red finishes its Ivy schedule with consecutive weekends against Columbia, Penn and Princeton, each with four game series. Cornell has midweek battles scheduled for the upcoming weeks against local opponents — Albany, Syracuse, Colgate, Ithaca and Binghamton.
“We are going to have to work hard to get back to where we were,” said head coach Dick Blood. “The Southern Division is loaded and it is going to be a dogfight.”
Blood has headed the program since 1996, taking a team that went 6-35-1 in 1995 to 17-20 in just one year. Blood has compiled over 400 wins in his career at Cornell, including six first place or share of first place finishes and five trips to the NCAA tournament after winning the Ivy League championship. In recent years, Blood led the Red to three straight Ivy League Southern Division championships.
With five seniors and two juniors, the Red has a solid base of experience that can help against its tough Ivy League opponents. Blood noted the importance of senior captains Erin Keene and Katie Watts.
“[Keene and Watts] are instrumental in bringing our team together this season,” Blood said. “They both believe in the club and their voice has demonstrated a strong work ethic that the younger players follow.”
Blood also expressed his enthusiasm for the younger players. Sophomore Jenny Edwards leads the team in homeruns, RBI and runs scored, while sophomore Alyson Onyon leads the pitching staff in innings pitched, strikeouts and games started while boasting a 2.75 ERA.
“We have a solid nucleus of players,” Blood said. “It is just a matter of whether they can all click together is another story.”
Watts described the early season struggles of being able to perform well in all facets of the game.
“We cannot seem to put all three pieces — offense, pitching, defense — together,” she said. “Hopefully, with the pressure of the Ivy upon us we will be able to do it.”
The Red got off to a strong start on March 31 - April 1 as it went 3-1 against Northern Ivy League opponents Harvard and Dartmouth. The team outscored its opponents 26-24 over the weekend, while only committing four errors. Senior Jenny Stoller pitched a complete game against Dartmouth, allowing just four hits and striking out six batters en route to her first victory of the young season. Sophomore Lauren Bucolo blasted three of the six homeruns Cornell hit over the weekend.
Going into the doubleheaders, the Red struggled with a 5-6 record over Spring Break.
“Our record does not reflect where we should be,” Watts said. “The focus this season will be how we can remain consistent throughout and be able to figure out the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.”
Watts noted how many teams in the Ivy League have improved this season, particularly highlighting Penn as the most improved squad over Spring Break.
Blood pointed out a few suprises that the team experienced at this early point in its campaign. Senior Morgan Cawley leads the team in batting average, while freshman Linda Lauefer hit a clutch two-run homerun off Ivy League Pitcher of the Year Rachel Brown in the first game against Harvard. Freshman Clare Feely boasts the team’s highest on-base percentage for 2012.
Despite the successful start against Harvard and Dartmouth, Blood and Watts remain cautious as to not get too ahead of themselves.
“Yes, we expect to return to [the Ivy League Championship],” Watts said. “But, right now we just have to focus game-by-game and take things one step at a time.”
Each Ivy League game counts the same towards the final Ivy League record that will determine which two teams play in the final series. While the Red was eager to beat up on the team that beat them in last year’s championship, Harvard, Cornell continued to focus on its other Ivy League rival, Dartmouth. Now the team’s focus shifts to Brown and Yale, the remaining two Northern Division opponents. Columbia, Penn and Princeton, along with Cornell, comprise the Southern Division. Whichever team wins in the championship series earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Penn sits atop the Ivy League with a perfect conference record, 4-0, leading the Red and Harvard at 3-1.
Erin Keene echoed Watts’s and Blood’s concerns about taking each game as it comes.
“We are not trying to look too far in advance,” she said. “We are just taking it one game and one weekend at a time and trying to get the job done.”
Every Ivy League game remains vital to the Red’s ultimate goal of “four-peating” its reign as Ivy League champions.
“Opening with the defending champs [Harvard] was a great challenge for this year’s squad,” Keene said. “I definitely think we rose to the occasion.”
The questions for this year’s softball team remain its ability to consistently play all facets of the game at a high level, all while taking each Ivy League game as the most important game of the season.