Chasing the Crown

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Nida Naushad

After smacking a one-out triple to the corner, then-freshman Zoe Galindo was just 60 feet away from giving the Harvard softball team a two-run lead over Dartmouth in the first of two must-win games for the Crimson during the final weekend of the 2013 regular season.

But Galindo never made it those 60 feet, and the Big Green eventually went on to win the contest on a home run in the eighth. With that, Dartmouth ended Harvard’s streak of four straight Ivy League Championship Series appearances and hopes of making a run with one of its youngest squads in recent years.

After falling just short, it’s not just the heartbreaking end that sticks with the team, but all of the missed opportunities throughout the season. If the Crimson hadn’t given up a four-run lead in the bottom of the seventh to drop a game against Brown, or given up five runs in the final two innings to spoil its 7-5 lead against Cornell earlier in the season, the team may have entered its final weekend in better position to move onto the Ivy League Championship.

If last year’s experience taught this team anything, it is that it is not just about the final series. Any game can make or break the season.

“We’re just going into the season treating every game like it’s the championship series,” co-captain Shelbi Olson said. “Every game counts at the end when it comes down to who gets to go to Ivies.”

With this approach to its season, the Crimson (13-11) needs consistency. It’s not just about strong pitching, steady defense, and timely hitting, but getting all three of these factors working together in every game.

But here Harvard has an advantage over where it was this time last year: the team is older and more experienced. Olson, one of the team’s three seniors, returns as a captain for the second year in a row.

“This year has been a lot easier because I know what to expect and what is expected of me,” Olson said. “[Over the past two years], I’ve learned more about myself and tried to make myself the best player I can....  You can’t help anyone else if you aren’t in a good spot.”

For Olson, this means continuing to set the table for the Crimson offense after she finished last season leading the Ivy League with a .370 batting average against conference opponents and 16 stolen bases.

Kasey Lange shares the captain spot with Olson this season. Lange has had a hot start to the year, with a .547 slugging percentage, 18 RBIs, and three homers in nonconference play this spring.

But the big difference this year is the team’s improved junior class.

“We are seeing Emily Gusse playing better, Katie Lantz playing better defensively, Katie Appelbe playing better,” Harvard coach Jenny Allard said. “All those players that got so much playing time and experience last year...are [now] having really solid contributory performances.”

Although the Crimson has seen offensive production from different players throughout the lineup in the early part of its season, the team has not been able to manufacture runs as consistently as it would like to.

“One of the strengths of this team is that there are a number of people who can come up in different situations, different scenarios, and come through,” Allard said. “We just need to be more consistent with that.”

In conference play, Harvard will need more clutch hitting, especially if it hopes to overtake Dartmouth and Penn in the Ivy League standings. Both teams  return their aces—Kristen Rumley and Alexis Borden, respectively—to the mound this season. But the Crimson returns an ace of its own in junior pitcher Laura Ricciardone. Before missing last season, Ricciardone was named to the All-Ivy League second team in 2011 and 2012, helping the Crimson to two consecutive Ivy League Championship titles.

Ricciardone has wasted no time proving she was ready to step up this season. She recorded a 2.42 ERA and notched five wins in the nonconference half of the season.

The Crimson also has greater depth on the mound than it did a year ago. Junior Gabrielle Ruiz, sophomore Morgan Groom, and freshman Taylor Cabe have already proven that they have what it takes to pitch in tight games and high-pressure situations. Each has an ERA under 2.50 going into the meat of conference play.

An Ivy League Championship eluded last year’s squad, but a more experienced team with better depth is poised to reclaim that title this season. For now, however, Allard has put the team’s focus squarely on performance, not end-of-season titles.

“One thing Harvard softball does very well is that Harvard softball focuses on Harvard softball,” Allard said. “So our job is to be the best team, we can be and get all of our players individually playing their best and collectively. We trust that if we do that, the process is going to take care of itself.”

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