Tufts reinvigorated following disappointing 2017 season

Senior outfielder/catcher Michelle Chisdak connects with the ball in Tufts' 7–5 win over Bowdoin on April 1, 2016. Sofie Hecht / The Tufts Daily

After an unsatisfactory end to last year’s campaign, the Tufts softball team is back with a score to settle. Tufts coach Cheryl Milligan described the team’s 2017 season as one of their worst in its recent history: the Jumbos’ 65-game unbeaten streak in the NESCAC East Division was snapped by the Trinity Bantams, and the Jumbos missed out on the postseason for the first time in the 21st century.

“We essentially got knocked out of the playoffs by one game,” Milligan said. “It was a really disappointing ending. It was really difficult to believe for players who had seen so much success in their four years.”

For a team that is used to winning at the highest level — Tufts took home the national championship in three straight years, from 2013–15 — missing the postseason was quite a shock. As much as Milligan laments last season’s woes, she is excited for the new season. Every season is different, and Milligan, entering her 15th season at the helm for the Jumbos, looks forward to seeing what the new group brings to the table.

“This team has been really impressive in their work ethic,” Milligan said. “I knew we would rebound in some way [after last season], but you never know what that rebound is exactly going to be.”

Although the team will rely on a balanced attack, senior catcher and outfielder Raven Fournier looks to be Tufts’ most dangerous hitter going into the season. Last season, Fournier posted a .440 batting average, bolstered by four home runs and 25 runs batted in (RBIs). The Springfield, Mass. native brings a wealth of experience into her final season, which she hopes will propel Tufts back to its previous heights.

“It’s all about experience, right? If you have done something 1,000 times, you’re a little more used to what’s coming at you,” Fournier said. “If you take more pitches in the box, you’ll be more comfortable. If you have the attitude that you can make your own adjustments and get acclimated faster, then it’s just better for everybody.”

While Fournier will likely be singled out by opposing teams as Tufts’ most dangerous hitter, she isn’t fazed by the label.

“I don’t really feel much pressure,” Fournier said. “I just try to stay as confident and collected in the box as I can. I don’t really think that having a certain label should define you as a player. If you can focus on the next pitch and how your team is doing, you’ll succeed.”

Although the entire lineup poses serious offensive threats, senior utility player and co-captain Samantha Siciliano and sophomore infielder Jamie Stevens join Fournier as two of the Jumbos’ strongest assets at the plate.

“Jamie Stevens is playing great at third base,” Milligan said. “She’s going to add a lot more power to the lineup. She was a [first-year] last year but boy, she didn’t play like [one]. Sammy hits doubles like it’s her job.”

Milligan also noted that unlike in previous years, this year’s squad possesses great speed, which is an additional aspect for opposing teams to worry about.

“For our offense, we’re a little bit more balanced. We have a lot more speed, in terms of getting on base and stealing bases,” Milligan said. “That hasn’t traditionally been a part of our offense. We’ll see where that takes us.”

Milligan is also excited for this year’s pitching rotation, as the team hopes to rebound from its struggles in the circle last year. Milligan observed that the team’s offense typically carried its pitching last season, and the team gave up too many easy runs. She is especially excited for what the Jumbos’ first-year pitchers will contribute.

“A [first-year] who will probably see some time is Kristina Haghdan,” Milligan said. “She’s not a big kid, but she throws hard. As she grows through the season, she may really add something to our team and give us a really different look.”

Unlike the athletes on teams that compete in the fall, the new Jumbos had an entire semester of the offseason to assimilate into the team. First-year infielder Mia Steinberg commented on this dynamic.

“It was definitely more slow-building to build those stronger bonds,” Steinberg said. “We’re definitely still working on it. We’re going to get so much closer as the season gets going more intensely.”

But Steinberg, a native of Larchmont, N.Y., also sees the gradual entry as a blessing — at least in terms of academics. She found it a lot easier to adjust to Tufts’ high academic standards without having to also worry about a regular season schedule during her first semester at college.

“Stepping into the school year without the high-intensity [period] of the sport was actually kind of nice because you’re able to get used to being at school, and your student-athlete obligations are second,” Steinberg said. “Once the season gets going, then you’re really immersed in it. It was nice to take a step back in the fall.”

As for adjusting to collegiate athletics, Steinberg and her classmates have found themselves right at home within the softball program.

“I am really lucky to be on a team that’s super inclusive and really good about getting the [first-years] to connect with Tufts, with the athlete community and the sport in general,” Steinberg said. “Tufts softball has been really good about bridging the gap between home and college. Captains host team bonding at the softball house. Lift was always fun. We’re all in it together.”

The Jumbos kick off their season with a grueling spring-break trip to Clermont, Fla., where they will play 14 games in nine days. Despite its packed schedule, the team is excited.

“The kids are ready to play,” Milligan said. “What’s fun about Florida is that as much as we love scouting reports and information on teams, we won’t know much about the teams we play down there. There will be teams who haven’t played yet and look a lot different from last year. Some games, you really don’t know what’s in the other dugout and you just gotta go find out.”

Steinberg is excited for her first Florida swing, too.

“It’s going to be a lot of hard work crammed into one week,” she said. “It’s not necessarily going to feel like a vacation, but it’s going to be really, really fun, so I’m excited. We’ve put in a lot of hard work until this point, so I think we’re ready.”