Though the softball team has taken second place in the Ancient Eight the past two years, it has fallen just short of the title each time. Off to its best start in program history (10-0), the Red hope to go all the way this year thanks to strong pitching, consistent batting and newfound defensive depth.
“The freshmen have brought something we’ve really needed for three or four years now,” said head coach Dick Blood. “We just haven’t had depth.”
The Red nears Ivy play without last year’s captains, pitcher Whitney Smith ’06 and third baseman Caitlin Warren ’06.
“Both [Smith and Warren] were wonderful leaders and four-year starters. Anytime you lose a four-year starter, there’s going to be a hole [in your program] and generally speaking no one player can fill that hole.”
Instead, the Red will take a team-oriented approach thanks to the addition of nine freshmen, most with infield experience. In fact, the defining characteristic of this year’s team is that it is hard to define.
“Our greatest strength probably is the versatility of many of the players to play multiple positions effectively,” Blood said. “We have three or four infielders who are capable of playing in the outfield who have the arm strength and the leg drive to play in the outfield [capably] … I think the strength of our team may be that we have more athletes on our ball club than we’ve had in a little while.”
On the other hand, this situation has the downside of a relatively inexperienced team.
“I would guess in the early part of the season everyone’s heart rates are a little too high right now, and hopefully with a little more college experience they’ll start to calm down a little bit and then hopefully that won’t be a factor.”
The team will have enough to worry about once the Ivy League season begins. Perennial powerhouse Princeton will probably be a challenger for the championship. Though the Tigers lost Ivy 2006 Pitcher of the Year Erin Snyder to graduation, they return junior Kristen Schaus, who led the conference in strikeouts last season with 244.
The Red will have an edge against the reigning champions — having handed Princeton its first Ivy loss of the 2006 season on April 16 when sophomore Jessy Berkey’s homer gave Cornell a 3-2 lead.
“We’re right there with them,” Blood said. “We’ll see how it pans out. I don’t want to overlook anybody. It could be that Penn’s offense takes over this year. It could be that Columbia’s picked up someone we don’t know about. I don’t think it’s going to be a two-team race. … Parity has clearly struck the Ivy League softball teams.”
The Ancient Eight will introduce divisional play system to softball — seperating the teams into North and South divisions. The Red will be grouped with Princeton, Columbia and Penn, and a three-game playoff between the winners of each division will determine the Ivy championship.
“It doesn’t always necessarily mean that the top two teams will make it to the playoff,” Blood said. “The top two teams could come out of the other division. The top two teams could come out of our division. Second place in your division doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Under the new system, the Ivies will play 20 games instead of the usual 14.
“It’s going to be interesting to see,” he said. “You’re playing the same team four times in a weekend. So how do your number one and two pitchers hold up? How quickly can we figure out their ace and their number two? Can we get to them on day two if we don’t get to them on day one, playing a doubleheader Saturday and a doubleheader Sunday?”
The Red’s traditionally solid pitching staff had the second lowest ERA in the Ancient Eight last year (2.44). Junior Jen Meunier and sophomore Haley Mirrer, who finished the 2006 season with 2.08 and 2.89 ERAs respectively, have the experience to lead from the mound.
“Although we all worked hard [last year], our pitchers really carried the load during our defensive lapses and our offensive lapses. We sure had plenty of them,” Blood said. “The pitchers held us in there, and sometimes we’d come through in the seventh, sometimes we wouldn’t.”
Freshmen Dana Robbins and Izzy Pines will try out for that remaining position.
“Our goal for them is to throw strikes,” Blood said. “We’re not asking for them to dominate or anything like that. We’re just asking for them to throw strikes and get outs.”
Senior Sarah Ruben and sophomore Nicole Cheever will share time behind the plate. Freshman Vanessa Leonhard, however, will play an important role for the Red.
“I fully expect to use Leonhard back there defensively as well,” Blood said. “She’s pretty tough, strong throwing arm, outstanding blocking mechanics, [she is] a really exciting player to watch.”
Senior co-captain Lauren Battaglia will also see some time at the position, though she will primarily cover first base.
The Red lost starter Erin Murtha ’06 to early graduation. The first baseman was named to the All-Ivy second team last year, in addition to a first team selection in 2005. Co-captain Battaglia, however, has established herself at first so far this season.
“[Last year] we needed somebody who was tough enough to play second base,” Blood said. “Although [Battaglia] lacked range, she was very, very tough and has good hands. I think she would agree with us that she’s not a second baseman. … With her talents, she’s really a catcher/first baseman.”
Second base will instead be in the hands of a talented, though green group of rookies as freshman Alyson Intihar, Devon March, Izzy Pines and Caitlin Hutchinson will compete for time. Young players such as freshman Elise Menaker and Caitlin Hutchinson will also fill the gap at third base left by the loss of first team All-Ivy member Warren.
Junior co-captain Samantha Hare started every game of the 2006 season at shortstop and adds a veteran presence to the inexperienced infield.
Junior Ashley Wolf, winner of last year’s Ivy batting title, is in right field. Sophomore reigning Ivy home run champ Meghan Risica will return to left field, while center field will again feature junior Jenna Campagnolo, a two-time first team All-Ivy selection.
“That’s a pretty potent outfield with good wheels and strong arms, each with a lot of experience,” Blood said.