With the 2016 season about to start, Tufts softball is getting very close to cementing its legacy as one of the most successful programs in the history of college athletics. As back-to-back-to-back Div. III national champions, softball is undoubtedly Tufts’ current strongest athletics team, though men’s lacrosse gives them a run for their money.
But as the Jumbos head into their third straight title-defense season and seek a fourth straight national championship, they’re approaching the rarefied territory of sports greats, a short list that includes John Wooden’s UCLA basketball program, Lance Armstrong, the 1936-39 New York Yankees and Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, to name a few. They’re already tied for the most consecutive national titles in NCAA softball history and hold the record for the most consecutive titles in Div. III softball history.
Even more impressively, Tufts softball hasn’t lost since May 26, 2014, a narrow 2-1 defeat against Salisbury in the NCAA Div. III Championship tournament, though they quickly bounced back to beat Salisbury later that day and then the next day to win the 2014 NCAA title. Over their last three championship seasons, the Jumbos have gone 144-7 overall and cruised to a perfect 51-0 season last year.
The team’s quest for its fourth straight title begins over spring break with a trip to Florida that sees them play seven doubleheaders in eight days before returning to Medford for their home opener on Tuesday, March 29 against Babson. Tufts kicks off the season tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. with a game against Whitworth before playing a host of non-conference opponents from across the nation over the next week.
The Jumbos only began their preseason training a few weeks ago due to strict NESCAC regulations, putting them at a distinct disadvantage relative to the other top teams in NCAA Div. III. By contrast, Texas-Tyler, the team Tufts beat in last year’s NCAA championships, has already played 19 games this season. But the Jumbos are confident that they’ll still rise to the top even after their short Spring Training.
“Our offseason has been five weeks of becoming familiar with our new team. Each year we come to practice on Feb. 15 ready to play whatever defensive role we fit best in and become a powerful offensive team,” junior first-baseman and outfielder Summer Horowitz said. “Our program is built around offense and this year has been no exception. It is very exciting to watch our hitters get better everyday and continue to improve through our last game.”
“Offseason training is always tough as we work hard to get stronger, quicker and keep our skills up,” sophomore UT Samantha Siciliano said. “We did a lot of weightlifting, went to speed school and worked on our softball skills in small groups and as a team.”
Also unlike many of the top softball teams in the nation, the Jumbos’ unglamorous offseason was mostly spent in the gym, far from southern sunshine or cheering crowds.
“Offseason training has been very intense but great,” senior co-captain pitcher Erica County added. “The team has been working really hard to improve all aspects of our game from hitting to fielding to pitching. In the offseason our main focus is to get our strength up with lift three times a week because our season is so quick and so demanding.”
The Jumbos don’t play a NESCAC East Division opponent until their three-game series against the Bowdoin Polar Bears April 1-2. That series kicks off a packed April schedule that sees them play three-game series against each of their NESCAC East opponents — which also include Bates, Colby and Trinity — as well as a host of NESCAC West Division and non-conference opponents.
Tufts has won the East Division the past five years and has won the NESCAC title each of the last four years as the team has not lost a game against a conference opponent since 2012. Tufts softball’s 10 all-time NESCAC championships leads the conference, while second-best Williams only has three. The Jumbos have been either a NESCAC champion or runner-up for thirteen of the last fifteen years, so they have clearly dominated the NESCAC and look to continue their dynasty this year. Thus, unsurprisingly and probably justifiably, the team considers making the postseason a given and is already looking forward to May.
“If we are playing our best softball in May, we put ourselves in a great position for the NCAA tournament,” Horowitz said. “We have smaller goals that we focus on each day at practice and during games, and they all build up to our ultimate goal of winning a National Championship.”
This year’s team will enjoy a certain advantage and prestige over Tufts teams of recent years. Beginning in the fall of 2014 and ending late last season, Tufts renovated the team’s home Spicer Field into a facility fitting of the nation’s best team, one that can play host to potential NCAA tournament games. The facility features a new field, deeper fences, modern dugouts, a refurbished scoreboard and a press box and bleachers. However, the new Spicer Field debuted late in the season on April 11 and, because of the relentless winter, the team got few opportunities to play on it before the playoffs.
“Fortunately, we have been able to practice outside a few times during preseason because the weather has been so great, but playing games on our new field is always such a privilege for us,” Horowitz said. “If the weather stays as mild as it has been, we should have plenty of softball in Medford.”
The team, though already close, hopes to build up both their skills and teamwork in Florida in order to get into an unprecedented rhythm.
“The offseason is also a great time to get to know the freshmen and bond as a team so that we already have good chemistry once we start the season,” said Siciliano.
“Teamwork is so important in softball and we are embracing that more than ever this year. One person cannot win or lose a game, and we pride ourselves on being 22 strong. Every member of our team is 100 percent committed to her role,” Horowitz said.
The biggest obstacle for the Jumbos this season will be contending with the graduation of former tri-captain Allyson Fournier (LA ’15), a two-time Honda Div. III Athlete of the Year, four-time National Softball Coaches Association (NFCA) All-American, four-time NESCAC Pitcher of the Year and arguably the best pitcher in Div. III softball history. The team also lost the experienced leadership of former tri-captains Gracie Marshall (LA ’15) and Michelle Cooprider (LA ’15), along with that of one of the most decorated athletes in Tufts athletics history, Bri Keenan (LA ’15), who, in addition to her three NCAA softball titles, was the goalie for the 2012 NCAA champion Tufts field hockey team.
But this year’s roster is still potent, led by co-captains County and fellow senior Christina Raso. County will take over as the Jumbos’ ace after putting up impressive numbers in 2015. Though overshadowed by Fournier, County was also undefeated on the mound, going 15-0 with a 1.68 ERA. Junior Cassie Ruscz, a powerful force at the plate last season leading the team with 13 home runs and a .446 batting average, will lead Tufts’ offense again this year.
With their returning veterans and incoming rookie talent, coach Cheryl Milligan’s squad is confident heading into its title-defense. County put it succinctly and simply.
“I have high expectations for our team,” she said.