Tufts softball’s season ended on May 15, with a 4-2 loss to WPI in the NCAA tournament’s regional championship round. After three consecutive NCAA titles, the early exit was disappointing for coach Cheryl Milligan’s talent-packed team.
Tufts also fell to Williams in the final game of the NESCAC championship tournament over the weekend of May 6-8. As the four-time defending NESCAC champions, the Jumbos entered the tournament as the favorites to take home their fifth title. After beating Amherst to advance to the winner’s bracket and then losing to Williams, Tufts had to beat host Williams twice in the double-elimination tournament to take the title.
Facing off against the Ephs in Game 6 of the tournament on Sunday, May 8, the Jumbos kept their title hopes alive as they came out on top 13-6, thanks mostly to an 11-run first inning capped off by a grand slam from rising senior Cassie Ruscz.
The win set up a high stakes winner-take-all final Game 7 of the tournament later that day. Tufts started the second game where it left off when Ruscz drilled a two-run home run in the top of the first, her fourth home run of the tournament. But the Ephs flipped the script on the Jumbos, tying the game in the bottom of the first and then taking the lead in the second. While rising sophomore pitcher Mackenzie Murphy held Tufts scoreless for the next five innings, Williams added four more runs in the bottom of the third inning to seal the 8-3 win and steal the NESCAC crown.
Despite the end of the Jumbos’ NESCAC title streak, Ruscz made history with her four home runs and 12 RBIs in the tournament, both the most in those categories in NESCAC championship history. She won NESCAC Player of the Week honors for her heroics and — after finishing the season leading the NESCAC in home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage — was named NESCAC Co-Player of the Year, winning the award for the second straight season. While Ruscz is the first Jumbo to ever win the award twice, she joins a long history of distinguished Jumbo softball players, who have together claimed 12 of the 16 conference Player of the Year awards since 2001, including the last three, starting with Jo Clair (LA ’14) in 2014.
Joining Ruscz on the all-conference first team were graduating senior co-captain Christina Raso — also the NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 — and rising junior Raven Fournier, who also made the first team last year. Rising junior pitcher Raina Galbiati and rising sophomore shortstop Christian Cain were named to the second team.
After the NESCAC tournament, the Jumbos moved on to host an NCAA Regional at Spicer Field the weekend of May 13-15, but were unable to move past the regionals round after losing to WPI in the final game, ending the season 30-12.
Tufts had started the season slowly, going 7-6 in the first two weeks after having not lost a game in all of 2015. However, the recovery from this start to NESCAC play was strong, as the team went on to successively beat Bowdoin, Colby, Bates and Trinity three times each to secure their fifth consecutive 12-0 season in the NESCAC East. Outside of NESCAC East play, Tufts was also successful, with two wins against Endicott College, and wins against Babson and MIT.
The program has consistently had one of the best offenses in the nation and, during the Allyson Fournier (LA ’15) era, unquestionably the best pitching staff in Div. III. But this year’s team, even with their main offensive weapons from last year like Ruscz and Raven Fournier, struggled to limit opposing teams’ offenses without Allyson Fournier, despite strong pitching from Galbiati and graduating senior co-captain Erica County. Still, coach Milligan is pleased that, up and down the roster, the Jumbos made positive contributions.
“What always impresses me most is the players who give so much to our team every day in practice but don’t necessarily see the field as much on game day,” Milligan told the Daily in an email. “Our program is in constant gratitude to them … It is pretty extraordinary and humbling and I don’t thank them enough.”
Though their season ended earlier than they have come to expect given the strength of their program, the Jumbos are set on bouncing back for another strong season in 2017. The team loses strong leaders in Raso and County, but Ruscz will be back again to lead the Jumbo offense. With Galbiati and the team’s other young pitchers building confidence and gaining experience, Tufts softball still seems poised to stay in the national championship conversation again next year.
“Our goal is to get better every game and continue to battle to stay in it,” Milligan said. “Our team has a history of having culture that is all-in and we ask a lot of our players in terms of commitment and focus. Our team is into having fun, but we think winning is pretty fun, so that is a priority for us.”