Two-time defending national champs begin quest for three-peat

Senior tri-captain Michelle Cooprider helped provide offensive firepower in the Jumbos' 14 game-winning streak to open the season.

Three Years of Dominance

Every year at the Matriculation Ceremony on the academic quad, Dean Lee Coffin gives a speech in which he outlines the various accomplishments of the incoming class. Tufts students, even before they matriculate, are no slouches. Coffin may identify founders of companies, inventors, geopolitical experts and YouTube stars. This speech characterizes the Tufts student body well.

But perhaps the most impressive exhibition of talent and success by any Tufts students over the last three years has been the performance of the softball team. The program began a three-year stretch of dominance in 2012, finishing the season with a 41-7 record and placing fifth at the NCAA Championship Tournament.

The following season, the team improved its record to 46-3, winning its final 19 games and concluding the season by storming its way through the NCAA Tournament and winning its first ever National Championship.

Not finished with their reign atop the Div. III softball rankings, the Jumbos dominated the field once again in 2014, finishing with a 47-4 record, which included a 31-game winning streak that lasted more than a month and a half. Once again, the team finished the season as National Champions.

Over the past three seasons, the Jumbos have won 134 games and lost just 14 for an incredible .905 winning percentage.

It’s no coincidence that this stellar three-year run by the sport’s most dominant team has coincided with the presence of senior tri-captain Allyson Fournier. Fournier, the team’s best pitcher and winner of the NCAA Div. III Athlete of the Year Award, has ruled her sport perhaps better than any other collegiate athlete in the last three years.

Fournier burst onto the scene as a first-year in 2012, starting 22 games and earning 23 of the team’s 41 wins. Her win totals increased over the next two seasons, reaching 25 in 2013 and 28 in 2014. Her career record coming into the 2014 season sat at 75-5. And while win/loss records can be deceiving, her statistics are staggering, even to the most casual sports fan.

In her first three years, Fournier appeared in 94 games for the Jumbos amassing 533 innings pitched. She pitched complete games in 67 of her 73 starts and earned 37 shutouts. In these 533 innings pitched, Fournier struck out 893 batters, while allowing just 82 walks, 209 hits and 41 earned runs. She has a 0.69 career ERA and a 0.54 career WHIP. Throughout her career, opposing hitters have slashed .122/.162/.165 against her, which is good for a .328 OPS. She boasts a 49.9 percent K rate with just a 4.5 percent BB rate, giving her a K to BB ratio of 10.89.

Fournier attributes some of her success to the preparation and knowledge of the coaching staff.

“When I am on the mound, the coaches choose what pitch and location I should throw, and then signal that information to the catcher and myself,” Fournier said. “The coaching staff usually has a scouting report on the opposing hitters, especially if we are playing an in-conference opponent. Each pitch is chosen to give me the best chance of success.”

The Journey Begins Again

Coming into the 2015 season, the Jumbos were once again ranked No. 1 in the nation in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) preseason poll. Despite so much recent success on the biggest stage, the team will have to find a way to stay motivated to grind through the difficulties of another 50+ game season if it is to once again successfully defend its National Championship.

“We work hard to understand that this is a new year and a new team,” senior tri-captain Michelle Cooprider said. “None of us expects the wins to come easily.”

As far as being seen as the team to beat by all of the Jumbos’ opponents, Cooprider says that superior preparation is the best defense.

“Our team definitely has a target on our back,” she said. “We get the best efforts from all of the teams we play, which makes every game a challenge. We prepare for every game. Our program works hard for our success and does not expect it to just come out of thin air.”

Clermont, Fla.

 The Jumbos began their title defense playing seven doubleheaders in eight days in sunny Clermont, Fla. over spring break. This was a chance for the team to set the tone for the upcoming season and to prove that it deserved the No. 1 ranking despite losing several key players from last spring’s Championship team to graduation.

True to form, the team won all 14 of its games on the trip, outscoring its opponents by a total of 105-25.

One of the few close games that Tufts played during the trip was a 4-1 win over Washington & Jefferson that lasted 8 innings on Thursday. The game was a classic pitchers’ duel between Fournier and opposing thrower, junior Emily Watson. The game remained scoreless through seven innings before junior Christina Raso singled to score sophomore Shelby Lipson in the top of the eighth inning. The Jumbos scored three more insurance runs in the inning, and Fournier, after allowing a run in the bottom of the inning, struck out the last two batters of the game to quell a rally by Washington & Jefferson. Fournier finished the game with 19 K’s, one hit and one run allowed in eight innings of work.

On the other end of the spectrum, the game that provided perhaps the most excitement came on March 14, the second game of the trip. Tufts bested University of New England (UNE) in a high scoring 8-7 affair that featured a pair of third-inning home runs off the bats of Raso and sophomore Cassie Ruscz. UNE scored three runs in the 6th to tie the game at 7-7. But in the top of the 7th, Cooprider hit a one out double and scored the go-ahead run on a single by Ruscz. Fournier pitched the last five outs of the game, striking out four batters and not allowing a baserunner.

If there were any doubts about Fournier’s high workload over the past three seasons catching up to her, she quelled them in the first game of the season. Exhibiting a flair for the dramatic, Fournier pitched a no-hitter in the first game of the season, striking out fifteen batters and allowing one walk in six innings. The no-no was the 11th of her career, the most ever by a Div. III pitcher.

According to Fournier, the high workload that she has shouldered in the past shouldn’t be an issue.

“The softball pitching motion is much more natural, and places less stress on the arm than a baseball pitcher’s motion,” Fournier said. “This allows me to have a high pitch count, both day-to-day and over the course of a season. If my arm becomes sore, I make sure to ice it after practice or rest for a day.”

Fournier allowed one earned run in 47 total innings in Florida, striking out 101 batters. Junior Erica County shouldered most of the rest of the pitching duties, allowing eight earned runs and striking out 16 batters in 37 innings. County finished the trip 6-0.

The Tufts offense put up stellar performances up and down the lineup, with 19 different players scoring runs, and 18 hitters notching an RBI. Cooprider hit .388 with 19 hits, six doubles, one triple and a team-high 16 RBI, while Raso hit .310 with 13 hits, five doubles, a triple, a home run and 11 RBI. Senior tri-captain Gracie Marshall slashed .429/.447/.543 in 35 at bats on the trip, and first-year Raven Fournier slashed .400/.531/.560 in 25 at bats, posting six RBI and scoring nine runs.

But the best offensive performance came from sophomore Cassie Ruscz. Ruscz posted a slash line of .474/.556/.789, good for a 1.345 OPS in 38 at bats. She notched 18 hits, three doubles and three home runs to go along with 12 RBI and 13 runs scored.

Cooprider attributes a lot of the team’s success to younger players like Ruscz.

“All of our underclassmen have the potential to have a great impact on our program,” Cooprider said. “[In Florida], our freshmen pulled through both on offense and defense all throughout the week, and our sophomores fill the spectrum, from slappers like [sophomore] Carrie [Copacino], to power hitters like Cassie [Ruscz]. In a few of our games when our energy was down and we needed a spark, I found that it was the underclassmen who came through and kept our offense alive.”

The Road Ahead

No longer spoiled by the sunshine and warmth of Florida, the Jumbos will resume their season at home this weekend, hosting the Bates Bobcats for the Jumbos’ home opener on Friday and a doubleheader on Saturday. As the first conference match-up of the season for Tufts the meeting with Bates will serve as the next big test, for winning the NESCAC title is the first step toward the team’s ultimate goals.

A championship is never likely, but the Jumbos have shown so far this season that they are ready and able to make a run at a third straight National Championship.

“This was out first year leaving Florida undefeated, so that will keep us motivated to keep up the success moving forward,” Cooprider said.