The Harvard softball team now finds itself in a most uncomfortable-and unusual-position. For the first time in a year, the team's fate lies in hands not its own.
After splitting its games Friday with upstart Columbia and Saturday with Cornell, the defending Ivy League champions now stand a game behind the Big Red and Dartmouth in the race for the Ivy League title. The Crimson (14-16, 5-3 Ivy) cannot repeat last year's feat without at least some help: if Cornell wins all four of its games against Penn and Princeton next week, the Crimson would definitely not repeat as Ivy League champs.
"We feel we're a much better team than the losses indicate," senior pitcher Chelsea Thoke said. "We've been inconsistent and I think we could've won all the games we've lost."
The team split on the weekend despite a monstrous effort from Thoke. She pitched in all four games, turning in 11 innings and allowing only one earned run while striking out 10.
Thoke also hit two home runs and, in the first game of the Cornell doubleheader, recorded the 500th strikeout of her career.
Cornell 2, Harvard 1
Big Red senior Nicole Zitarelli showed why she is one of Cornell's all-time winningest pitchers on Saturday, handcuffing the Crimson with a one-run complete-game gem. But it appeared that she had a little help.
With the Crimson down 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth, junior Sarah Koppel singled to right off of Zitarelli and narrowly beat out the throw to start the rally. Sophomore Grace Bloodwell came in to pinch run, and co-captain Mairead McKendry moved her over to second with a successful bunt.
Freshman second baseman Sara Williamson's liner was snagged in the outfield, but the speedy Bloodwell managed to get to third on the play, leaving the tying run 60 feet away with two outs.
Junior outfielder Lisa Watanabe then attempted to bunt the runner home, and laid down a sacrifice that appeared to do the job. As Bloodwell crossed the plate, Zitarelli fielded the bunt and threw to Kristen Hricenak at first. The ball appeared to pull Hricenak off the plate but Watanabe was called out, nullifying the tying run.
That was the best opportunity the Crimson would get as Zitarelli pitched a 1-2-3 seventh to cap off her performance. The senior scattered five hits to lead the Big Red out of Cambridge with the split.
Cornell got the only runs it needed in the fourth inning. With one on and one out, Harvard sophomore Tiffany Whitton unleashed a pitch that Hricenak sent over the wall in left for a 2-0 lead.
The Crimson rallied in the bottom of the frame. With two outs and nobody on, freshman second baseman Sara Williamson doubled to center. Watanabe brought her home with a sharp single to get Harvard's only run.
Whitton finished with eight strikeouts in six innings, and Thoke pitched a perfect seventh.
Harvard 7, Cornell 3
The first game of the doubleheader was all Crimson-or, more specifically, all Thoke.
The senior struck out eight in five innings, allowing only one run. She also helped her own cause in the bottom of the second with a two-run homer to left that keyed a three run inning off of Big Red starter Sarah Sterman. The Crimson got another run across the plate when shortstop Sarah Goldberg's double brought Watanabe home from second later in the inning.
Thoke surrendered a solo home run to Cornell's Charlotte Brombach, Thoke fell behind the next batter 3-0, but battled back to notch her 500th career punchout.
"I'm excited to have the record," Thoke said. "But a lot of it is that I'm just a strikeout pitcher. I wish I could trade some of the hits that's cost me for groundball outs."
In the bottom on the third, the Big Red began to self-destruct. Cornell shortstop Joanne Keck committed two costly errors as the Crimson scored two more runs without getting a single hit.
Cornell mounted its final serious threat in the top of the fifth when Thoke walked the bases loaded with no outs. But she escaped the jam when she fielded a Christina Trout line drive and threw to home to get Erin Sweeney out at the plate. Thoke then struck out the next batter to shut down the rally.
Kara Brotemarkle pitched the final two innings, giving up two runs on two hits.
Harvard 7, Columbia 0
In the bottom end of Friday's doubleheader, Brotemarke and Thoke combined to shut out the Lions. Brotemarkle picked up the win as she scattered two hits in four innings.
Thoke also hit her first home run of the weekend and led a balanced scoring effort. Seven different players drove in the seven runs, and the team cranked out seven doubles.
"We didn't hit as well as we wanted to in the first game," Thoke said. "We just needed to come back strong after that, and we did."
Columbia 2, Harvard 1
The first serious setback to the Crimson's Ivy title chances came in the first game against the Lions, when Columbia's Allison Buehler and Whitton engaged in a pitcher's duel. Harvard took an early lead when sophomore catcher Monica Montijo doubled in Watanabe, who had stolen second.
Whitton kept the Lions hitless through five innings, but the first hit was a double by Columbia's Anne-Marie Ebner. Ebner would eventually score the game-tying run.
In the next inning, Ebner struck again, driving the game winning run off of Thoke, who had come in to relieve Whitton with runners on base.
Buehler finished what she started, striking out eight and walking none in her complete game.