April 13, 2007

New Division Format Pits Red Against Penn for Four

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It may not be as glamorous as a Monday night rematch of last season’s AFC Championship Game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots, but this weekend will feature a prime-time caliber series that is much more relevant to Cornell. The softball team is set to tackle Penn — its main competition for the Ivy title — in two doubleheaders on the road running tomorrow through Sunday.
As in any Manning-Brady face-off, an essential element of the game will be the players’ mental toughness. Not only will the Red be taking on a fellow contender for Ivy supremacy, it will also get its first experience dealing with the consequences of the Ivy League’s new, two-division format.[img_assist|nid=22865|title=Battery mate|desc=Senior Sarah Ruben winds up to throw against Siena in a 4-1 win on April 4. The Red faces Penn four times this weekend, with doubleheaders tomorrow and Sunday.|link=node|align=right|width=72|height=100]
Under the guidelines of the new system, the teams in the North Division play normal doubleheaders against teams in the South Division. However, the teams in one division are slated to play consecutive doubleheaders against every team in their own division. For the first time, Cornell will play four games in a weekend against the same Ivy rival.
“Mentally it’s kind of a daunting task to try to beat a team four times, especially in one weekend,” said senior co-captain Lauren Battaglia. “So that’s what we’re focusing on more, the mental aspect.”
Though Cornell (26-7, 7-1 Ivy) and Penn (18-12, 9-3) own the best records against Ancient Eight opponents, they are both in the South Division. Only one of these teams will get a chance to play in the Ivy League championship game.
Penn’s 2007 incarnation features a “beefed-up offense,” according to Blood, “possibly the best offense in the league.”
“We know they’ve scored a lot of runs [this year],” he said.
At first glance, Penn’s position in the Ivy League seems like a complete turnaround from last year. When Penn and Cornell met last season, the Red pummeled Penn, 6-2 and 10-2, with home runs from then-freshmen Jessy Berkey and Nicole Cheever. In the sixth inning of the second game, Cornell smoked the Quakers for seven runs, including a grand slam by Caitlin Warren ’06.
Blood, however, points out that Penn’s seemingly sudden emergence as an offensive powerhouse is not that unexpected. This is Leslie King’s fourth year as Penn’s head coach, and the team has been steadily developing during King’s tenure. With ten seniors, the Quaker roster is filled with experienced underclassmen.
“[Penn’s coach] got a lot of fine athletes in there quickly, and they’ve progressed slowly,” Blood said.
The Quakers can depend on the depth of their lineup to power the offense. Senior Stephanie Reichert, for example, has contributed under the radar. She broke Kinsey’s 2006 single-season record when she hit her sixth homer of the season against Brown this past weekend, and she was named Ivy League Player of the Week a month ago for her performance in Penn’s games over spring break.
Two of Penn’s biggest threats, according to Blood, are second baseman junior Annie Kinsey and shortstop classmate Christina Khosravi. 2006 first-team All-Ivy member Khosravi is also the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, while Kinsey was recently named Ivy League Player of the Week after leading the Quakers to a 5-1 week, including a 4-0 sweep of Columbia.
Wins over fellow South Division members such as Columbia are even more important nearing the end of the regular season. As demonstrated by its 7-1 record in the Ancient Eight with only one loss to Brown on April 1, the Red has dominated the North Division of Brown, Dartmouth, Yale and Harvard.
A four-game series puts an enormous amount of stress on the pitching staff, and Blood pointed out Cornell’s lack of pitching depth as a concern since the preseason. With only junior Jenn Meunier and sophomore Haley Mirrer as proven starters, Penn will get more chances to gauge both pitchers since they will likely pitch all weekend.
“We’re essentially only two-deep in pitching,” Blood said.
Though freshman Dana Robbins has improved over the season, recording her first collegiate win against Harvard last weekend, she will only fill in if needed. The Red has no choice put to put all its cards on the table.
“When it’s such a short series, you’ve really got to show your best as often as you can,” Blood said. “We’ve got to play solid defense behind [our pitchers], but there’s really no way to hide them.”
Penn, however, also has only two or three main pitchers at its disposal, so Blood doesn’t expect the game results to rely completely on what happens on the mound.
“They’ll be in the same boat we’re in,” he said.
Penn split with Villanova on Tuesday, winning the first game, 6-5, and dropping the second, 7-4, when darkness led to stoppage of play at the end of the sixth inning. The Quakers, however, have won five of their last six Ivy contests.
Most recently, Penn beat Brown in a tight game on Easter, 3-2, before proceeding to demolish the Bears, 14-6, in the second game of the doubleheader. The game was called due to the mercy rule.
But Cornell is on a streak of its own, also having won five of its last six Ivy contests. The Red plans to stick with the successful starting lineups from last weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard, with one exception.
Junior Samantha Hare will return as starting shortstop after a weeklong absence. Her replacement, freshman Alyson Intihar, will return to second base, and freshman Devon March, who manned second base so Intihar could cover short, will instead serve as a defensive replacement.
Battaglia, last week’s Ivy League Player of the Week, will again start at first base. According to Blood, it is Battaglia’s attitude that has led to a recent surge in her performance.
“[Battaglia has been] really energized by Ivy League play,” he said. “She’s been very aggressive. … She’s not afraid to fail, and that’s a good thing to do.”
Cornell was scheduled to play a doubleheader against St. Bonaventure yesterday, but both games were cancelled due to the weather. The team will use this extra time to get some extra batting practice and hopefully practice on the field as much as the weather allows. Nevertheless, it is a blow to the Red that it did not get to face a solid club like St. Bonaventure as a warm-up to this weekend.
“We wanted to play. It was going to keep us sharp [for this weekend],” Blood said.
The games will not be rescheduled, since the Bonnies’ schedule is already set and the Red is entering the heart of its season. For now, Penn is the only thing standing in the way of Cornell’s season-long goal to win an Ivy championship.
“I think we’re ready … to go out there and fight,” Battaglia said.