For the first time in four years, the Jumbos will begin the regular season without the title of national champions. While the team’s aspirations remain as high as ever, coach Cheryl Milligan – entering her fourteenth year heading the program – emphasized the importance of keeping early results in context.
“We’ll be tested [on] day one for sure, but I don’t think our season is going to live or die on day one,” Milligan said.
The season begins over spring break, when the team will take a trip to Clermont, Fla.
“We’ve got 14 games down [in Clermont],” Milligan said. “We will also play the [No. 5-ranked Luther Norse (6-0)] while we’re down there, so it will be a good test to see where we are at this point in the season. And – win or lose – if we do well against those teams, I think we’ll know that we’re heading in a good direction. But we’re out to win every game, so that’ll be the goal.”
Senior tri-captain outfielder Carrie Copacino offered additional insight into how the pressure during last season to repeat as champions impacted the team’s collective psyche.
“Honestly, last year [the pressure] was a lot of what we struggled with,” she said. “I think this year that pressure is off of us. So, it’s actually more of a positive thing going into this season. I think we’re more hungry for it. This year we have a lot more positive outlook on where we’re sitting than we did last year.”
Tufts entered 2016 having won the NCAA Div. III National Championship in each of the previous three years (including a perfect 51-0 campaign in 2015). Last year, the Jumbos assembled a perfect 12-0 in the NESCAC East Division before finishing as a runner-up to the Williams Ephs in the NESCAC Softball Tournament.
In the NCAA tournament, Tufts beat the Becker Hawks and the Salve Regina Seahawks, but two defeats to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Engineers condemned the Jumbos to a regional finals defeat. Tufts finished with a 30-12 overall record, having lost more games in 2016 than in the previous three years combined.
At the heart of Tufts’ batting order stands senior tri-captain first baseman Cassie Ruscz. The Wolcott, Conn. native is a two-time second team All-American, two-time NESCAC Co-Player of the Year, and three-time member of the All-NESCAC First Team. Last year, Ruscz led all of Div. III in home runs (18) and ranked in the top ten nationally in runs batted in (61) and slugging percentage (.887). She also posted a team-high .409 batting average and walked more times than she struck out (14 vs. nine).
Junior catcher/outfielder Raven Fournier also earned All-NESCAC First Team honors last year. The 2015 NESCAC Rookie of the Year and third team All-American avoided a sophomore slump by launching the second-most home runs in the NESCAC (eight, only trailing Ruscz) and leading the conference in walks (22) while hitting .366.
Also returning this season are two members of the 2016 All-NESCAC Second Team: junior pitcher/utility player Raina Galbiati and sophomore shortstop Christian Cain. Last year, Galbiati posted impressive numbers from both the mound and the batter’s box. In 18 pitching appearances (13 starts), the Boulder, Colo. native went 10-4 with a 2.96 ERA in 82.2 innings. Additionally, Galbiati slashed .429/.506/.586 and registered 25 RBIs in just 70 at-bats. Cain, meanwhile, assembled a .388 batting average while leading the team in doubles (12) and ranking second in at-bats (121).
Milligan singled out senior first baseman Summer Horowitz and junior catcher/utility player Sara Willner-Giwerc as two players who have made significant improvements during the offseason.
“Summer Horowitz has been swinging a great bat in practice. She’s really poised to have a great senior year,” Milligan said. “She had a pretty good year last year, but I think she’s kind of coming to be on par with Cassie in terms of really major power in our lineup. I think we had Sara Willner-Giwerc at a couple different positions last year. This year, she’s really improving behind the plate, so I’m expecting her to do some time behind there … mainly because she has a really strong arm.”
In comparison to its veteran lineup of position players, Tufts’ pitchers are relatively inexperienced, with three first-years joining junior Raina Galbiati and sophomore Amolee Hawkins on the staff.
“You know, [when it’s the] first week, first college start, that can be a little shaky, so it’ll be interesting to see how they get their footing,” Milligan said.
Nonetheless, she expects the new players to assume a major share of the pitching load for the Jumbos this season.
“We certainly have plenty of arms. It’s just a matter of who’s going to be an effective arm,” she said. “Right now, our top two pitchers might be freshmen [Allison Tilton and Gillian O’Connor]. But they’re freshmen, so [it’s] even harder to say. If they do what they’re capable of doing, they should get a bulk of the starts with Raina, Amolee, and another freshman, Maria [Ostapovich], filling in around the edges … I think they’re going to progress in our program as great talents on the mound.”
One first-year player who has already vaulted herself into the starting lineup is infielder Casey Maggiore.
“Casey Maggiore has been really productive at the plate and really, really defensively sound at third base,” Milligan said. “She’s got the position locked up for herself at this point. She’ll be one freshman who’s not on the mound and making a pretty big contribution.”
The Jumbos begin the season on Saturday with two games in Clermont. Tufts plays the Plymouth State Panthers (0-0) at 9:00 a.m. and the No. 7 Linfield Wildcats (12-2) at 11:30 a.m.
Copacino noted that it can be difficult to start a season playing ranked teams, such as Linfield.
“This is their 15th game and we’re on game one,” she said. “I think it’ll be good for us to get into playing and see how we all work together once we’re on a field. It’s definitely different than in practice in terms of the pressure.”