Kicking off its non-conference season at the Florida Atlantic Classic this weekend, the Harvard softball team has big shoes to fill.
The reigning back-to-back Ivy League champion made its mark at the end of last season, when it became the first team from the conference to win a game in the NCAA tournament since 2005.
But when the Crimson takes the field in Boca Raton on Friday, it will be with a decidedly different—and younger—starting lineup.
After graduating pitcher Rachel Brown—who led the Ancient Eight in strikeouts—and infielder Jane Alexander—who started all 50 games and closed out the season with a team-high .381 batting average—Harvard will look to its 13 freshmen and sophomores to fill the void.
“That was a really strong senior class,” Crimson coach Jenny Allard said. “There was strong leadership and they had just grown so much. This team is an underclass-heavy team…but probably one of the hardest working and fighting teams I’ve ever had.”
Of the six teams participating in the Classic this weekend, Harvard is the only one that has not yet begun its season. Florida Atlantic University (5-9) has participated in three tournaments since the beginning of February and this will be the third consecutive competition it hosts.
Taking the field on Friday morning, the Crimson faces Jacksonville (10-4) and Ball State (6-3) in back-to-back games. The Dolphins jumped out to a strong start at the Panhandle Invitational and have suffered their only losses at the hands of nationally ranked opponents. The Cardinals have participated in two tournaments and hold a winning record, relying on a strong offense that has outscored its opponents, 77-31.
“We kind of have an idea of a couple of lineups that we’re going to want to look at this weekend,” Allard said. “We hope to give everyone some experience playing. I think the goal in the first weekend is to get out there and compete and see what we still need to work on.”
On Saturday, Harvard will have a more balanced schedule, playing Eastern Michigan (2-3) in the morning and host Florida Atlantic University in the evening. The Crimson’s match-up against the Eagles will be only the second in program history, with the first coming in a 5-1 loss in 2009. Eastern Michigan has looked to seniors Katy Blaharski and Courtney Nicholson—each batting .429—for a majority of its offensive output thus far this season.
Despite their losing record, the Owls have been in a number of close games and, along with Michigan State, have the most on-field experience since opening their season in early February. Sophomore pitcher Samantha Messer—fresh off a two-hit complete game last week—leads a strong Florida Atlantic pitching staff that has held its opponents to a .259 batting average.
In its first tournament of the year, Harvard will look to explore its pitching options. Coming in without an established rotation, the Crimson has a number of options to replace Brown, including returning sophomore Gabrielle Ruiz, freshmen Morgan Groom and Jamie Halula, as well as senior Jess Ferri—a utility player who pitched as a freshman.
“[Ferri has] made some really good adjustments this year,” Allard said. “We’re hoping to get some work out of her. We don’t necessarily have a starting rotation, but we have four pitchers ready to go who can help the team.”
Before returning to Cambridge on Sunday, Harvard will face Michigan State (8-6) in the final game of the weekend. The Spartans have come away with winning records in their last two tournaments behind starting pitcher Kelley Smith, who leads the team with a 2.20 ERA.
The five-game tournament will be an opportunity for the Crimson’s six freshmen to play at the collegiate level for the first time. In addition to the two pitchers, the class includes catcher Rachel Halperin, outfielder Zoe Galindo, and infielder/outfielders Haley Davis and Alyssa Siegman.
“They’re a competitive class,” Allard said. “They came in a little unassuming, but when they were bought into our off-season training program and our conditioning and our lifting program, they had so much improvement and growth.”
Traveling south to warmer weather, Harvard will be able to play outside for the first time this season.
“I think we want to just work well together as a team and just feel what it feels like to play a game again,” said junior co-captain and outfielder Shelbi Olson. “We’re mostly just excited to get on a real field and play on the dirt and the grass, in the sun.”
—Staff writer Hope Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @hopeschwartz16.