Softball Claims First ECAC Title

Michael W. Nitsch

The Harvard softball team’s reaction is a mixture of disbelief and elation after coming back from a two-run last-inning deficit against Princeton in mid-April.

There was plenty of advance warning that the softball doubleheader on April 13 between Ivy unbeatens Harvard and Princeton would be among the league’s best sporting events of the year. With young talent and a legitimate Ivy Player of the Year candidate on each side, it promised to be the most competitive Ivy softball ever played.

It certainly lived up to its billing.

The Tigers entered the bottom of the seventh in each game with a crooked-number lead. But instead of wrapping up the Ivy title, Princeton left Soldiers Field with just a split—and it was fortunate to escape with even that against the never-say-die Crimson.

Ever resilient, Harvard achieved a 31-10 season—the best by percentage in school history—as well its first ECAC title in school history.

All of this came in spite of a young roster of 15 freshmen and sophomores, one junior and four seniors. For such an inexperienced squad to match Princeton for the Ivy title was ultimately beyond reality. Still, the Crimson proved in the end that it wasn’t necessarily beyond its capability.

On April 21, Cornell and its ace Sarah Sterman dealt an abrupt death blow to Harvard’s Ivy title hopes. The Crimson, which featured the 12th most productive offense in the nation this year, shouldn’t have been troubled by any Ivy pitcher. Yet Harvard couldn’t lay off Sterman’s high pitches and the mighty Crimson offense wasn’t managing much more than pop-ups.

“We’re young,” Harvard Coach Jenny Allard said at the time. “We keep making these mistakes.”

Sophomore pitcher and Second Team All-Ivy pick Kara Brotemarkle kept the game tied 0-0 until the fifth, but then a few bloop hits and defensive miscues loaded the bases for Cornell’s top hitter, Lauren May. The end result was a 5-1 Cornell win, and Harvard finished the Ivy season 12-2, a game behind Ivy champion and NCAA qualifier Princeton.

Harvard’s chance at redemption came against Cornell in the postseason ECAC tournament. In its second chance against Sterman, the Crimson was determined to hack only at good pitches.

Second Team All-Ivy shortstop Rachel Goldberg, a sophomore who drove in two runs, and sophomore second baseman Sara Williamson, who went 4-for-4, played with passion. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, junior tri-captain and Ivy Player of the Year Tiffany Whitton doubled home Williamson for the game-winning run.

Sterman was defeated. Allard could not help to think of what might have been.

“If we would have done this and came out like we did, this game, against Cornell at their place, we would have been having a play-in against Princeton,” Allard said.

From the Crimson’s perspective, the tragedy of the Ivy season was that no playoff ever occurred between Harvard and Princeton. Instead, Cornell—who struggled early in the season against Princeton but played strong enough to split with Harvard late in the season—decided the Ivy champion.

But a playoff would have had a tough time living up to the excitement of the regular-season doubleheader.

After dropping the first game with Princeton, 4-3, Harvard found itself down 4-2 in the bottom of the seventh of the nightcap. With one out and the bases empty, sophomore Breanne Cooley strode to the plate with the season on the line.

Four batters latter, Harvard had delivered four straight singles. Then, with two outs, Whitton drove a grand slam out of the park to delight the largest home crowd of the season. Final score: Harvard 7, Princeton 4.

The Crimson had nearly pulled off a remarkable comeback in the first game as well.

Harvard was behind 4-1 against Princeton ace Brie Galicinao. In the last inning, Harvard freshman Beth Sabin shook up Galicinao with a two-run homer. Soon after, Harvard put two runners on with two outs for tri-captain Sarah Koppel, and Galicinao nailed Koppel in the gut.

As Koppel winced in pain, the umpires ruled her out, claiming she had swung while trying to avoid the pitch. Allard called it one of the worst calls she had ever seen. The Crimson had to live with it and ultimately coped with the second-place finish.

“It’s hard because a lot of people will [think] because we didn’t win an Ivy championship that this wasn’t a successful season,” Whitton said. “But this was a very successful season.”

While Whitton was Harvard’s only First Team All-Ivy honoree, five players earned Second Team honors—Brotemarkle, Goldberg, Cooley, sophomore Kim Koral and freshman Lauren Stefanchik.

Stefanchik and Koral, each .300-hitting slap hitters that Allard typically used at the top of the order, helped give Whitton her lofty nation-leading RBI statistics by getting on base and advancing with frequency. With all the All-Ivy talent returning next season—plus recruiting classes that are getting stronger each year—expectations are as high as ever.

Though all the seniors were overlooked for First and Second Team All-Ivy honors, their class was still strong this season.

Pitcher Suzanne Guy, a First Team All-Ivy pitcher on the 2000 Harvard team that made NCAAs, came back after a year off and posted an 11-2 record.

Second baseman Cherry Fu, a Second Team All-Ivy player in 2000, struggled with injuries for her final two seasons but made a valiant return to the field at the end of the season.

Koppel, a First Team All-Ivy player for her first three seasons, delivered a career-high 30 RBI in her final year and graduated as a model of consistency for Harvard softball, having started every game of her four-year career.

“It’s a good end to a career,” Koppel said of Harvard’s ECAC championship. “I’m sure all the seniors are happy with it. I’m sad—I love playing.

“Winning Ivies and going to [NCAA] Regionals sophomore year was great,” she added “But this I’ll always remember also. We all came together and played really well, which is a great feeling to have to leave on.”

SOFTBALL

RECORD 31-10 (12-2 Ivy, 2nd place)

COACH Jenny Allard

CAPTAINS Sarah Koppel, Lisa Watanabe,

Tiffany Whitton

HIGHLIGHTS The 2002 team posted the best win percentage in school history with a 31-10 record. The seventh inning was the Crimson’s best—it outscored opponents by a margin of 30-12 for the season.