To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
This weekend, if the Cornell softball team wants to represent the Ivy League in the NCAA tournament, it must knock off co-champion Harvard. The Red faces a daunting task, as the team must travel to Cambridge, Mass., for the best-of-three playoff series.
Over the previous four years, the Crimson has been nothing less than spectacular, winning the title in 1998 and 2000, and a share of the 2001 crown with Cornell. During this stretch, Harvard has gone an incredible 46-5 in league play. However, the one team in the league that has been able to stand up to this juggernaut has been the Red, which won the title in 1999 and 2001. Cornell has played particularly well on the road in this rivalry.
“We know we’ve got a formidable task,” head coach Dick Blood acknowledged. “But we have split with them twice [once in 1999 and once in 2001].”
Already this season, Cornell has split a doubleheader with Harvard in Cambridge on April 14th. On the strength of strong pitching from Chelsea Thoke, Harvard won the first game 7-3. In that game, the Crimson jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, and the Red could not dig itself out of the hole. However, Cornell avenged the loss in the nightcap, winning a pitcher’s duel 2-1. Senior Nicole Zitarelli pitched seven dominant innings and allowed just five hits and one run. Junior slugger Kristen Hricenak provided the offensive spark with a crucial two-run blast.
However, this is a Crimson team that is undoubtedly playing its best ball of the season. After starting league play with a mediocre 5-3 mark, Harvard has rolled off six consecutive league victories. Last weekend, the Crimson swept Dartmouth to win a share of the Ivy crown and to force this three-game playoff. The Crimson dominated the Big Green, winning the first game by an 8-1 margin and the second contest by a 5-0 score.
In addition to its Ivy League feats, Harvard also boasts a recent victory over blazing-hot Boston University. Before its meeting with the Crimson, BU held an 18-game winning streak. However, Harvard, on the strength of back-to-back RBI doubles in the seventh inning, put a quick end to that streak.
Runs will be hard to come by against the Crimson, as the team boasts possibly the best pitcher in the league in the form of Thoke. Thoke is an overpowering pitcher, sporting a 10-4 mark this season to go along with her minuscule 1.61 ERA. In 104 innings this season, she has struck out 124 batters and allowed just 81 base hits. As her team has caught fire, she too has pitched exceptionally well, winning her last five, including the 8-1 complete game victory over Dartmouth.
“We’ve got a tough job because they’re going to throw the big right-hander Chelsea Thoke at least once,” Blood stated. “We’ve got to stay off her changeup, low and away. In two-strike counts, we have to fight those tough pitches off.”
In addition to Thoke, the Crimson also features rookie pitcher Kara Brotlemarkle. Like her teammate, Brotlemarkle has performed well all season long, and has also won her last five outings. If it were not for her high profile teammate, she would receive more notoriety, as she has a 10-6 record with a 1.85 ERA.
Blood noted that it was imperative for team, “to stay confident and relax at the plate.”
Harvard also has the ability to outscore its opponents, featuring one of the stronger lineups in the league. Its offense is led by Tiffany Whitton, who leads the entire league with a .414 batting average. She also has a team high 25 RBIs and is second on the team with seven home runs. The lineup is strong throughout, as five different players have batting averages of at least .300.
Cornell has also played well as of late. The Red has won its last four games, with doubleheader sweeps of Albany last week and Binghamton on Wednesday. Senior third baseman Allison Batten has led the offensive charge, seemingly carrying the team on her shoulders. With four more runs batted in against Binghamton, she now leads the team with 39 on the season. She also hit her 10th home run on the season, and the 23rd of her career, which is a Cornell record.
In addition to ace Zitarelli, freshman pitcher Nicole LePera has pitched brilliantly lately. In her most recent outing against Binghamton, LePera pitched 5 2/3 innings without giving up a single run. She scattered six hits and two walks to improve her record to 4-0. In fact, she has pitched well enough recently to earn a start in the upcoming Ivy battle.
“We’re going to start Nicole LePera in the first game,?” Blood noted. “We’ll throw Nicole Zitarelli in the second game. After that, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Archived article by Alex Ip