Few teams ever have the fortune to play on the biggest stage in their sport, and even fewer come away with a trophy to show for it. An even smaller percentage of elite teams have the chance to retain that trophy, and with a 6-0 win over Salisbury on May 27, the Tufts softball team joined the upper echelon of achievement in its sport, becoming the first softball team since 2005 to repeat as Div. III National Champions.
The road to their second straight championship was not easy for the Jumbos though, as they constantly faced teams looking to knock off the defending title-winners.
“There was definitely a lot more pressure put on us to be the best,” senior pitcher Allyson Fournier said. “We knew we had to be on top of our game every day, because every team would be coming out to beat us. It put a little more pressure on us, but it also made us have higher expectations as a team, so it made us work even harder.”
The team fought through the pressure, and hit its stride in the second half of the season, rattling off 31-straight wins from April 9 to May 25. This streak included a particularly dominating run during a portion of the NCAA tournament, in which Tufts had outscored its opponents 56-8 through the semifinals.
However, in the finals, a best-of-three series, the Jumbos suffered their first significant setback in almost two months, falling 2-1 to the Salisbury Sea Gulls in the series opener.
“I think we went into that game expecting to win but [we knew] that they were going to be our best competition,” senior centerfielder Michelle Cooprider told the Daily in an email. “Their team has incredible pitching and a few amazing hitters that I believe we let get the best of us just one too many times.”
Both teams were held scoreless until the third inning, when Tufts struck first on an RBI double from co-captain catcher Jo Clair (LA ’14). In the next half inning, Salisbury took a lead it would not relinquish, as it plated two runs on a solo home run from junior Paige Knussman and an RBI single from junior second baseman Molly Simpson.
For the remainder of the game, Salisbury senior pitcher Rachel Johnson silenced the Tufts bats, allowing just four Jumbos on base in the final four innings and securing the victory.
“Obviously we weren’t happy about losing, but I think that the [loss] was kind of a wake up call because we hadn’t lost in so long,” Fournier said. “It was kind of like ‘O.K., now we really need to put it in high gear and play our absolute best for the rest of the series.”
With the Jumbos playing with their backs against the wall, Fournier looked past her first loss of the year on Monday morning and turned in a pitching performance for the ages the same night, throwing 14 shutout innings and striking out six.
“I was a little bit tired afterward, but I think I was running on adrenaline,” Fournier said of throwing 21 innings in one day. “I was so focused on getting through each inning and getting every batter out that I wasn’t really thinking about being tired at the time.”
While Fournier kept the Salisbury offense at bay, Johnson and Game Two starter, Kathryn Larson (LA ’14), combined to do much of the same, limiting Tufts to just seven hits over the first 13 innings.
In the top of the 14th inning, Tufts finally broke through, scoring six runs on six hits. In the bottom of the inning, Fournier didn’t let the Sea Gulls sniff a comeback and sealed the win with a 1-2-3 final frame.
“Extra innings were terrifying with lots of ups and downs,” Cooprider said of the marathon affair. “We had one inning [where Salisbury had] bases loaded and one out and I thought that could be the end. Coming out of that inning, we knew that winning was a very attainable goal. A few innings later we put together a string of hits and got six runs at once. It only took us a short 14 innings to get there.”
With the series knotted at one game apiece, both teams entered Tuesday’s matchup knowing that their respective seasons had come down to one final game.
“We went in the second [game] viewing it as if it was a single championship game because it was winner-take-all,” Cooprider said. “We went in fired up knowing that we were the team coming in with the momentum from the day before.”
The Jumbos used that momentum to jump out to a quick 2-0 lead in the second inning, thanks to RBI singles from junior shortstop Christina Raso and Sara Hedtler (LA ’14).
Tufts then broke the game open in the third, scoring four runs to provide a six-run lead that was more than enough for Fournier, who despite pitching in what amounted to her fourth game in less than 48 hours, hurled another gem, shutting Salisbury out over seven innings.
“I think I was just very focused on getting through each inning, and winning each inning,” Fournier said. “I knew our batting was going to come through, because they had done it all year long. I knew it was just a matter of time until they broke it open, so I just had to hang on until they did.”
The win allowed seniors like Clair and Hedtler to turn in their brown and blue uniforms as champions — no small feat for such an accomplished class. But as the Jumbos prepare to ramp up for a third-straight title, they know that despite the increased expectations, with every year comes a new team.
“I think [winning again] puts pressure on our team, but I think we also are very aware of the fact that this will be a new year and a new team,” Cooprider said. “We really hammered that point in last year coming off the first win, so I think it will be an easier transition going into this season. Having won before, it makes us realize that winning a national championship is always an attainable goal and gives us something to work for all year.”