Tufts softball is 7-4 to start off the 2016 season after finishing its annual spring break trip to Clermont, Florida, with a relatively disappointing start for the three-time consecutive NCAA Div. III national champions who went undefeated last season. The four losses, the most the team has suffered in its spring break trip since going 6-7 in 2011, equal the total number of losses the team has suffered over the 2014 and 2015 seasons combined.
Though they didn’t get the start they had probably wanted to their season, the Jumbos see no reason to panic yet, believing that they have still made some early season progress in forming a more cohesive team and getting back to form.
“The goal for our spring break trip was to get progressively better throughout the week,” senior co-captain Erica County told the Daily in an email. “I think we accomplished that goal. I think we’re beginning to gel as a team and figure out how we work best together. Overall, the spring break trip was challenging but [it] also put us in a great position to hit the ground running at home this week. I’m happy with our performance. It wasn’t the best softball we could play, but it showed a great amount of potential as we move through our season.”
In an abrupt end to its NCAA record 53-game win streak dating back to 2014 and a serious blow to its national status, Tufts dropped back-to-back games to Whitworth University to open the season — the first time Tufts softball has lost two games in a row since April 2011. The Jumbos were topped 6-0 by a strong Pirates squad in the team’s season opener in Florida on Saturday, March 19. After the game later in the day against Concordia University of Michigan was cancelled due to rain, the Jumbos moved on to a rematch against the Pirates on Sunday. The second game, despite featuring Tufts’ generally prolific offense scoring, still resulted in another Whitworth win, this time by a 7-2 margin.
County — one of the best pitchers in NCAA Div. III softball history — has attempted to fill the shoes of Allyson Fournier (LA ’15), but took the loss in the first game, County’s first since the 2014 season. She was tagged for 14 hits and six runs over seven frames after posting an impressive 1.68 ERA last season. The second game against Whitworth featured sophomore Raina Galbiati and first-year Amolee Hawkins making their first appearances on the mound for Tufts. Galbiati started and took the loss, giving up five hits and five earned runs over 3.2 innings, while Hawkins allowed a hit and an earned run over the last 2.1 innings. Junior first baseman Cassie Ruscz also picked up her first home run in game two, a two-run blast that represented the team’s only scoring on the day.
After the initial shock of losing the first two games, things began to get better for Tufts. Later on Sunday, the Jumbos bounced back to shut-out the Worcester State University Lancers 7-0 to pick up their first win of the season. County pitched a seven-hit shutout to get her first win of the season, and the Jumbos came alive as four different players tallied two hits and the roster tallied 11 total to give County plenty of run support.
“During [the Worcester State game], our offense, defense and pitching all started coming together and we saw the potential of what our team could become and what we could achieve together,” senior co-captain Christina Raso told the Daily in an email.
Tufts followed up the Worcester State win with another shutout the next day, beating Wellesley College 8-0 in six innings as County picked up another shutout, coming close to a no-hitter after giving up just one hit. Ruscz, like the Jumbo offense as a whole, began to get comfortable at the plate, going yard twice more in the game.
“Our 8-0 shut out against Wellesley was a great in-region win for us that we were all very proud about,” County said.
From there, Tufts began to pick up some momentum, topping West Virginia Tech 16-11 later on Monday in an extra-innings affair with five runs in the eighth. On Tuesday, the team beat Salve Regina University 6-5 in another eight-inning contest, with Ruscz knocking in the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth before sophomore left fielder Michelle Chisdak threw out the potential tying run at the plate in the bottom of the eighth in dramatic fashion.
Tufts continued to flex its muscle with an 11-2 win over Stevens later on Tuesday as the team lit up Stevens’ pitching for three home runs, including another from Ruscz — her fifth on the season and fourth over the Monday-Tuesday span — and one each from Chisdak and sophomore Samantha Siciliano. After an off day on Wednesday, the win streak continued into Thursday as Tufts pounded Allegheny College 9-0 in a short five inning game that featured Ruscz’s sixth homer of the season and her fifth in a five-game stretch. County, also settling down on the mound, picked up her third shutout of the week to improve to 4-1.
Tufts’ six-game winning streak ultimately came to an end later on Thursday though ,with a 5-3 loss at the hands of Hood College. Hawkins, who got the start and struggled off the mound early, giving up three earned over three innings, was saddled with the loss as the Hood College Blazers’ pitching quieted down the Jumbo bats that had been hot going into the game.
Tufts bounced back again the next day, besting Buffalo State in a strong 10-2 win, led at the plate by junior first baseman Summer Horowitz, who went two for three with three RBIs and two runs scored.
But in a dismal finish to the break, the Jumbos dropped the last game 9-1 against the College of Saint Benedict Blazers this past Saturday, with junior Shelby Lipson scoring the lone run for the Jumbos. Hawkins, County and Galbiati all made appearances and gave up runs as Tufts struggled to stem Saint Benedict’s offense.
In the aftermath of the busy week, the Jumbos hope to learn from the spring break trip as they look forward to the rest of the season and their home-opening doubleheader against the Babson College Beavers this afternoon.
“We started to form and work as a team back in September when we began lifting and practicing together,” Raso said. “Since then, we have continued to build on our team chemistry. We have created a cohesive team in which each member adds value and contributes to our success.”
The team’s leadership is also pleased with the contribution of the rookies so far this season.
“The freshmen are all finding ways to contribute to our team and they all bring a lot of positive energy, which has been great for our team chemistry,” County said. “The spring break trip is also a greater way to get the team to bond since we are constantly together for a week together in Florida. We always get a lot closer as a team during that trip.”
With fourteen veterans and eight new first-years, forming a cohesive team and trying to fill in the roles of last year’s seniors will be essential. Rather than look backward on their three national championship titles, the team looks forward to the season as a new unit. The Jumbos can look to Ruscz, who earned NESCAC Player of the Week honors after hitting nearly 500 over the trip with six home runs through the first 11 games, to lead them at the plate, and County began to find her rhythm on the mound more as the trip went on.
“The team is very driven and determined, and we have great chemistry and cohesion, which is expected with the great leadership we are getting from our seniors and juniors,” coach Cheryl Milligan told the Daily in an email during the trip. “We have several [players] hitting very high averages — our seniors did a great job. We have yet to find our best lineup and have some defense plays and technical things to work on, but overall we feel positive about where the team is. Our goals are intact and fully achievable, despite being a different team than last year.”
“Looking forward, we want to keep improving as a team every day,” Raso added. “Our goal is to be the best team we can be when [the] postseason arrives in May and to give ourselves the best chance at winning a national championship.”
Though they may have started off in a hole, the Jumbos continue their quest to return to the national championship game with games against the Beavers this afternoon at 3 pm and 5 pm at Spicer Field.