For the third consecutive year, the Harvard softball team stormed through Ivy League competition to earn a berth in the best-of-three Ivy League Championship Series, to be held at Soldiers Field starting May 11.
The 2009-10 Crimson posted a 17-3 record in conference play before falling to Cornell in the ILCS in three nail-biting games. Last season, Harvard sported an 18-2 Ivy record and again met the Big Red in the ILCS, this time submitting a dominating performance and winning the title in two games, by a combined score of 9-0.
This year’s Crimson squad could be the best of the bunch. Led by characteristically stellar pitching from co-captain Rachel Brown and a powerful offense keyed by senior Jane Alexander and sophomore Kasey Lange, the Crimson (31-13, 17-3 Ivy) again pummeled Ivy League competition in the regular season, including one stretch of 14 straight victories against conference foes.
But Harvard will confront a different
challenge in the upcoming championship series: Penn and star pitcher Alexis Borden. Borden led all Ancient Eight pitchers this season in wins (24), ERA (1.33), and innings pitched (183.2), and she’s peaking at the right time for the Quakers. In the one-game playoff to decide the winner of the South Division on Friday, Borden threw a perfect game against Cornell en route to a 4-0 victory and a berth in the ILCS.
“I had the game tracker up on my computer,” Brown said. “Obviously, she did what she had to do to get the win. It’s impressive for her to throw a no-hitter in such an important game.”
With the win, Penn earned a bid to the ILCS for the first time since 2007, in which it lost to the Crimson in two games. But this is arguably the strongest Quakers team in history, with a school-record 33 wins, including 15 against Ivy opponents.
“I definitely think [Penn is] a lot stronger than past years,” Brown said. “They’ve always had talent, but this year they were a good team. I know they have two strong lefty leadoffs, and then they have two power hitting righties after that, but I think their whole lineup is very strong, so pitching and defense are going to be crucial.
The Quakers’ victory also precluded the latest installment of one of Ivy League softball’s fiercest rivalries from happening; for the first time since the 2008-09 season, a battle between Harvard and Cornell will not decide the Ivy League champion.
“We as a team had focused on [that] it doesn’t really matter who we play because we’ve been playing well all season,” Brown said. “Clearly, we have an intense rivalry with Cornell, so playing them would have been more of a deep-rooted opponent, but we know Penn is a strong team.”
Borden, the source of much of that strength, will likely pitch Game 1 and, if necessary, Game 3 of the series. She made two appearances against the Crimson earlier this season, allowing five runs and 11 hits in 7.1 innings in a pair of Harvard victories.
“Last time she came here, we handled her very well,” said junior Stephanie Regan, who is third on the team with a .336 average. “I am a very ‘see ball, hit ball’ kind of hitter; if its in the zone I’m going to take it. She has a good changeup and a good rise ball she likes to mix in, [so] if she throws it in the strike zone, you have to swing.”
The one-game playoff between Penn and Cornell forced the date of Game 1 of the ILCS to be moved back from May 5, for which it was initially scheduled, to this coming Friday. The extra week off provided Harvard with some much-needed rest, mentally and physically.
“It’s allowed us to sharpen up and think about what Penn did to us last time and prepare for the game,” Regan said. “The rest will give us time to have everyone at 100 percent, and not having the series in the middle of exams will help our mental health.”
The Crimson will need that rest to prepare for Borden. And with Brown, second in the Ivy League in wins, ERA, and innings pitched and first in strikeouts, taking the circle for at least Game 1 for Harvard, runs will come at a premium.
“I think it’s going to be really key to score early and keep adding runs, so one run at any point is going to really give us a cushion,” Brown said. “These games are going to be really close, so every run will count.”
—Staff writer Andrew R. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.