March 17, 2004

Chasing Tigers, Hunting Titles

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In 2003, the softball team finished the season with a 31-7 overall record and the highest winning percentage in school history (.816) amidst a veritable cornucopia of individual honors and accolades. Records were smashed, stars were born and the Red essentially posted one of its most decorated campaigns ever. Yet, the one award that eluded the squad last year is the only one it has been thinking about for the past nine months: the Ivy League championship.

“I think we definitely have the team to make it this year,” said senior outfielder Melissa Cannon. “We have great team chemistry, and that is a very positive thing for us.”

The Red’s 10-4 league record last season was not good enough to overcome back-to-back league champ Princeton, who figures again to be Cornell’s main competitor in the quest for the Ivy League throne. The Tigers have perennially dominated the top spot, accumulating seven league titles since the 1991 season. Meanwhile, the Red is looking for its first outright championship since 1999.

“There is a lot of parity in the league this year,” said head coach Dick Blood. “The top four clubs — Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Cornell — are all very capable of beating each other. But we have some nice options this year.”

Blood’s options include two first team All-Ivy returnees in senior Kate Varde and junior Melissa Heintz, second team All-Ivy shortstop Lauren May, and All-Ivy honorable mentions Erin Sweeney and Erin Kizer. Coupled with a speedy and versatile freshman class, the Red boasts one of the most potent and powerful offenses in the league. Blend in fellow All-Ivy pitcher Sarah Sterman and the Red seems to have the perfect recipe for its third championship since 1980.

“In years past, when we’ve had really good runs, we’ve had outstanding freshman and senior classes,” Blood said. “We have that mix again this year.”

Varde leads a formidable senior class that boasts five everyday players whom Blood expects to contribute consistently throughout the season and set an example for the underclassmen. Varde, who broke the Cornell record for batting average in a season with a .457 mark last year, will be looking to match or surpass her astounding power numbers of 2003 in which she notched 53 hits, 12 doubles and nine home runs. With 28 career homers thus far, the senior is tops on the Cornell all-time list.

Those big numbers earned Varde honors outside of the Ancient Eight as well. Following last season, she was named to the ECAC All-Star first team as one of only two Ivy leaguers to make the squad, and she also found a spot on the All-American Mid-Atlantic first team roster.

But Varde is no stranger to awards and championships. The Willmette, I.L. native led her New Trier High School team to the elite eight in the state playoffs as a captain, and she made the all-state honorable mention team.

In the summer, she also played for the Illinois Trevians, a select team which has placed as high as fourth in the country.

Varde’s work ethic, along with her classmates’, receives high marks from Blood.

“The seniors are working very hard — they couldn’t work much harder,” Blood said. “We want them to continue their productivity this season.”

Varde’s numbers are sure to benefit from the extra padding provided in the lineup by classmates Canon, Sweeney, and infielder Sandra Alvarez. Canon finished 2003 with seven doubles, four home runs and 17 RBIs in 113 plate appearances, while power hitters Alvarez and Sweeney combined for 45 RBIs.

Sweeney also made particularly big contributions against Drexel and Harvard last year. Versus Drexel, she batted 4-8 with three runs and 3 RBIs. Against the Crimson, her batting statistics dwindled in number but grew in importance. Down two against the Cantabs, Sweeney, who had whiffed in each of her previous at bats, belted a three-run bomb over the outfield fence. The homer, actually one of nine for the Red that day, put Cornell up 5-4 in the game, putting the team in position to hold onto the lead for a crucial Ivy win.

Yet, sheer numbers will not be the only positive indicator for the squad this year.

“I think true dedication and hard work will really come though for us,” Canon said. “Every person on the team has a role, and if everyone fulfills their role we will be successful.”

The Red’s newcomers are also showing promise, and Blood anticipates the rookies to adjust to the speed of the college game with poise and confidence. Freshmen Lauren Battaglia, Sarah Ruben and Beth Price will vie with Heintz for time behind the plate, giving Blood plenty of choices at the catching position. In addition, Erin Murtha and Nicole Christopoulos should see some playing time in the outfield, while Mannford, Okla., native Nicole Wheeler will compete for some starts at the corners.

“The freshmen have a lot of pop this year,” Blood said. “There are several players who can play a number of different positions.”

Combined with a stellar pitching staff led by ace Sterman, the Red seems to be in good position to break the Tigers’ stranglehold on the Ivy title. Last season, Sterman was second in the Ivy League with a paltry ERA of 1.43, leading Cornell to 19 wins in 24 appearances.

The senior out of Geneva, N.Y. displayed not only power and efficiency but rugged stamina, pitching the most innings (136.2) out of any player in the league, including 14 complete games and numerous relief appearances. Blood expects to use Sterman, who also notched 85 strikeouts and allowed only 15 walks, in many different situations this season as well.

“[Sterman] is our go-to girl,” Blood said. “She has impeccable control.”

Following Sterman in the rotation will be sophomores Kristen Landis and Whitney Smith. Both pitchers are coming off exceptional rookie seasons, in which they combined for 12 wins and only three losses. Smith finished 2003 second on the squad with an ERA of 2.16, striking out 41 in 64.2 innings of work. The Sparks, Nev. native also delivered a highlight-reel show against Brown in last season’s Ivy League finale. In one of two games in the series against the Bears, Smith tossed a three-hit shutout. .Landis was also solid, pitching 51.2 innings and giving up just 20 earned runs. In addition, the sophomores were among the few Ivy League pitchers not to allow a triple throughout the season.

“We plan to rotate Sterman, Smith and Landis,” Blood said. “This way, we have three very different styles of pitching to work with.”

One thing the Red is certain to be careful of this season is not looking too far ahead in the schedule, and consequently, dropping games to teams that it should not. After falling flat in three out of four games this past weekend against Drexel and Villanova, Blood and the rest of the squad know it is imperative to stay focused each game — regardless of the opponent.

“Our ultimate goal is to win the championship,” Canon said. “But we can’t overlook any one team on the way.”

Blood is confident the team will pull through when it needs to and come together in the next few weeks.

“We have to come to the park sharp and crisp every day,” Blood said. “We still have a few spots that need to be worked out, but overall things are looking great.”

Archived article by Kyle Sheahen