The Jumbos begin their season this week under the new leadership of interim head coach Lauren Ebstein. While the late-winter snow continues to thaw here in Massachusetts, the team travels to Clermont, Kissimmee and Winter Haven, Fla. for their annual season-opening spring break trip.
Cheryl Milligan, the winningest coach in terms of total games and win percentage, who was at the helm for 15 years, stepped down in November 2018. Ebstein was promoted from associate head coach to interim head coach.
Ebstein (LA ’07) is a career Jumbo; she pitched for Tufts, graduated in 2007 and has since returned to the coaching staff twice. Most recently, she served on the coaching staff since 2014, holding the title of associate head coach since 2015. After the four-year letter winner graduated, she was an assistant for the 2008 and 2009 seasons, too. Despite the transition, Ebstein explained that her familiarity with the team will reduce the challenges that come with taking over a program.
“Anyone who takes over is going to be a little bit different,” Ebstein said. “And there are things we’re doing as a coaching staff that are slightly different from last year, but it’s probably about the same as it could be for them having a different coach.”
Ebstein hopes to build upon last year’s campaign, when the team went 32–10 overall and made it to the NCAA Regional Final before losing to MIT. Ebstein knows what it takes, too — she was a part of the coaching staff for the 2015 team that went 51–0 season en route to a national championship, as well as the national championship side the year before.
Overall, it was a successful season, but it was a down year for an offense that typically ranks in the top of the NESCAC — last season the team’s batting average fell to eighth in the NESCAC at .309.
Although the team only graduated five seniors last year, they lost two of their top offensive players in Samantha Siciliano (LA ’18) and Raven Fournier (LA ’18). Fournier’s older sister, Allyson, was a four-time All-American who won three national championships with Tufts from 2013—2015.
Both placed onto the National Fast-pitch Coaches Association (NFCA) All-New England team and received All-NESCAC honors. Siciliano hit .390 with 4 home runs and 22 RBIs, while Fournier hit .381 with three home runs and 25 RBIs; both ranked in the top 10 for batting average within the NESCAC.
“I don’t think we had our best hitting year last year,” Ebstein said. “Making sure that we’re putting those pieces together hitting-wise will be something that we continue to work on from Florida and then through the season.”
On the defensive side of things, the Jumbos will rely on two young, strong pitchers who had breakout seasons last year: sophomores Kristi Van Meter and Kristina Haghdan.
As first-years, they led the pitching staff: Van Meter finished the season with a 1.09 earned run average (ERA) and Haghdan finished the season not far behind with a 1.43 ERA — the top two marks in the NESCAC, respectively. Van Meter was NESCAC Rookie of the Year and also earned NFCA All-New England honors.
“I don’t think last year I did everything that I could have done — you could ask any pitcher on the staff, and there’s always something you want to work on,” Haghdan said. “We’re really lucky [as pitchers] that we are able to coach each other, which I think is really special. As a staff, we warm up all together, and we’re watching each other as closely as we can. So, this year, in general, we’re very much relying on each other.”
Aside from pitching, other factors benefiting the team as they transition to new leadership will be depth and youth. Sophomores and juniors comprise more than half the team, and most players can play several positions.
“We have a lot of depth, so that will be exciting for us to see in Florida with a lot of games in a short amount of days,” Ebstein said. “That’s a huge strength to have so we’re excited about that.”
In Florida, the Jumbos face off against some of the top-ranked teams in the NFCA poll, including No. 22 Wisconsin-Eau Claire and No. 4 St. Thomas (Minnesota.). After spring break, the Jumbos also have games against No. 10 Williams and No. 5 MIT on their schedule. Both the NESCAC and non-NESCAC opponents on the schedule present important matchups for this year’s young team.
“We’ve been stuck inside and we’re really excited to go outside to Florida,” Haghdan said. “I think the team as a whole — it feels like we have unfinished business to do because we lost in the championship of regionals, so I think everyone has the mindset that we want to make it really far this season, but we also know we need to take care of the small details that lead up to postseason.”
The first game of the 15-game trip in Central Florida will be played on Saturday at 11:45 a.m. against Amherst in Kissimmee, Fla., just a few miles from Disney World. If everything goes according to plan, Dumbo won’t be the only high-flying elephant in Kissimmee next week.