Harvard University rarely plays the role of underdog, but when the Crimson softball squad traveled across the country to compete in the Regional round of the 2012 NCAA tournament, the odds were stacked against it as the lowest ranked team in its bracket.
So when Harvard topped the higher-seeded No. 50 Maryland Terrapins and No. 23 Texas Tech Red Raiders to advance to the Regional Final, it cemented the team as one of the best in Ivy softball history. An Ancient Eight team had not won a game in the tournament since 2005. For the Crimson, it had been twice as long. The last time an Ivy squad made it as far as this year’s Harvard team was 1996, when the game was played completely differently.
When Princeton won the Ivy League and advanced to the 1996 tournament, the regional rounds were actually regional, meaning that they did not have to face the traditionally stronger southern and western teams.
By 1998, the setup of the tournament was altered as the top eight ranked teams were each sent to different regions. That meant that in Harvard coach Jenny Allard’s first trip to the tournament, her Crimson squad would have to beat a top-tier Oklahoma squad twice to advance past the regional stage. That proved impossible, as Harvard fell to the Sooners, 8-0 and 3-0, despite besting Boston College.
Harvard made it back to the tournament two years later but was summarily sent home by the Sooners and Northwestern. The Crimson went without victory in its next two NCAA trips in 2007 and 2011.
In 2012, Harvard would have to beat much tougher competition to match the 1998 team’s tournament performance. The NCAA tournament is now configured in such a way to make each region similarly competitive from top to bottom, eliminating the regional aspect of competition all together.
The Crimson proved up to the task, though, thanks in large part to the play of co-captain pitcher Rachel E. Brown ’12. In the team’s four tournament games, Brown threw every pitch for Harvard while posting a 2.17 ERA.
Offensively, the 2012 team proved stronger than the previous year’s team that was shut out in both of its tournament contests. Led by Jane E. Alexander ’12, Ashley K. Heritage ’13, and Kasey L. Lange ’14, the Crimson bats provided enough offense to avoid elimination in back-to-back games Saturday.
That depth was not the result of a season of hard work or an influx of talent; it was the product of years of training.
“You look at the season, and for coaches this isn’t about working hard for one year,” Allard said. “These are years of development that culminate in one great season. It’s not like you worked hard from September to May, it’s a four-year process.”
For Allard though, the process has been even longer. Since taking over a middling program in the mid-1990s, the former Michigan standout has transformed the program into a perennial contender, within the Ivy League and now on a national level. The 2012 year culminated her most successful four-year run and sets the stage for even more success in the coming years.
“She’s made them better at Harvard,” said Cindy Cohen, who led Princeton to the College World Series in 1996. “I knew she would do a great job. She’s a really good coach.”
—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.