While most students were putting their feet up and enjoying time off school last week, Tufts’ softball team played 15 games in nine days in Clermont, Fla. The annual trip gives the team an opportunity to lock in for the rest of the long spring season. The Jumbos posted an 11–4 record, their best record in Florida since their legendary 51–0 season in 2015. The bats were swinging the whole week, with the Jumbos scoring 97 runs while only allowing 35. They also posted an impressive .325 batting average.
The Jumbos tee’d off their regular season with wins against the University of Chicago, Clarkson College, the College of Wooster and Carroll University. They all proved to be relatively easy games for Tufts with an average margin of victory of 7.25. In Tufts’ fifth game, Hope College proved to be staunch opposition. The Dutches scored two runs in the top of the seventh inning and won the game 3–2 in dramatic fashion. Milligan noted the team’s defensive struggles.
“We struggled defensively and lost the lead late-on,” Milligan said. “It was disappointing, but we were here to get better and learn, so it happens. I think we need to play those teams pretty regularly if we want to be where we want to be in the end.”
Defense is an area the team usually struggles with during the trip to Florida. Many of Tufts’ opponents have already played games, and because of the New England weather, finding time to practice catching on real grass before the season starts in earnest is difficult.
After beating Allegheny College 6–0 and then losing to Northwestern Ohio University 4–0, the Jumbos went on a three-game win streak, culminating in a huge 10–3 win against then No. 10 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. The win was Milligan’s favorite of the trip as Whitewater was the only nationally-ranked team they played. First-year pitcher Kristi Van Meter was especially impressive in the win.
“To beat them the first time we played was great. [Van Meter] pitched a great game,” Milligan said. “We hit the ball really well. That was probably our most exciting win because they’re so good.”
Van Meter’s collegiate debut saw her defeat the University of Chicago with a shutout, but Whitewater was in completely different body of water skill-wise. She was happy with her performance against such a fierce opponent.
“It was [Whitewater’s] first game so they were really hyped up,” Van Meter said. “I knew they were going to be aggressive but I just stuck to my game, and it worked pretty well. I worked on visualization and on the spots I want to hit with my pitches and it paid off.”
After such a big win against a top-ranked opponent, a sense of complacency may have set in as the Jumbos lost to SUNY New Paltz the very next day. The loss was especially frustrating for Milligan because she felt her women were superior to the opposition’s.
“We allowed New Paltz to tie it up in the bottom of the 7th with a fly-ball in the sun,” Milligan said. “We had an opportunity to go ahead in the top of the eighth but made a base-running error. We were going to the plate a little bit like ‘Let me see how hard I can hit this.’ Part of that is because we knew we were the better team.”
Senior catcher/outfielder Raven Fournier was similarly disappointed and saw it as an opportunity for growth, as it highlighted the dangers of having such a talented group of athletes.
“We’ve got to take from it what we can and learn,” Fournier said. “It shows every game is tough and will be good competition no matter what. If we don’t show up with our A-game, anyone can beat us. And the same goes for the other way around.”
After another three moderately easy wins against Wellesley College (twice) and Kalamazoo College, the trip ended on a sour note with a loss against a Whitewater team that was hungry for vengeance. The Jumbos lost 6–3, and it hurt mightily.
“It was the last game of the week, and we knew we had beaten them before, but obviously they’re a really good team that you can’t take lightly,” junior infielder Christian Cain said. “It was a really sore loss. Anything can happen when two great teams come out, and we didn’t hit the way we could hit in the first game. We had problems adjusting to the speed of the pitcher. They’re really good and came out with hits straight away.”
Although the 11–4 record is impressive and will help the Jumbos moving forward, what was more important, perhaps, is the time the teammates shared in Florida. The team’s bond and identity developed will be relied on for the rest of the season. Like Milligan said in the beginning of the season, every team is different. In Cain’s eyes, this year’s team identity is two words: 25 strong.
“Our identity is that we are 25 strong. Everyone contributes in one way or another. We definitely made a name for ourselves in Florida,” Cain said. “People after last year may have taken us very lightly … but you shouldn’t take us lightly, because we’re really good.”
Van Meter agreed, and added that after a disappointing season last year, the upperclassmen were key to this year’s revamp and identity.
“It’s an attitude of persistence,” Van Meter said. “A lot of the upperclassmen wanted to turn the program around after last year and have a positive environment where everyone’s working hard. That was really evident in the off-season. The underclassmen really jumped on board with that.”
For Milligan, the trip was an overall success. The team developed a sense of self, got some great results, and also learned a lot about where they can make improvements for the rest of the season.
“Overall, no one disappointed,” Milligan said. “There were some plays I’d like to have back, and some moments I’d like to have back, but we’re taking it all forward. We have a lot of faith in what we do.”
The Jumbos will play their first game at home this Friday, March 30, against Bowdoin, their first NESCAC opponent of the year.