As the 2013 season began for the Harvard softball team, most of its players had only one objective on their minds: winning another Ivy League championship. The Crimson was coming off of a stellar season in which it had captured the Ancient Eight title and won two games in the NCAA regional round.
Much of that success was due to the performance of then-sophomore Laura Ricciardone, who was named second team All-Ivy for the second time in as many seasons. But as her teammates geared up for another run at a championship, Ricciardone was 1,500 miles away.
Instead of staring down opposing teams’ batters from the mound, Ricciardone was facing a much bigger challenge. Then a rising junior, she made the decision not to return to campus for the academic year in order to stay home and take care of her mother after she received a cancer diagnosis.
While at home, Ricciardone found a job at a health insurance company. As she balanced taking care of her mother and her job, Ricciardone still found time to train.
“I did a lot of off-the-field conditioning and lifting, as well as softball pitching to stay in shape,” Ricciardone said. “My main focus was on my fitness level.”
So after watching her team come up short in its quest for another Ivy League title, Ricciardone returned this year more motivated and more ready than ever.
Aside from Ricciardone, the Crimson returned a very formidable pitching staff. No one could anticipate that Ricciardone would perform at the same high level after a year without softball—particularly after what she had endured the previous year.
“It was the longest time I have been without softball games since I was very young,” Ricciardone said. “It was definitely different, but coming back, it was like riding a bike. It comes right back and it was a great feeling to be back out there on the mound with my teammates behind me.”
In her first appearance in the circle since defeating Penn in the Ivy League Championship Series 21 months before, Ricciardone didn’t miss a beat. The junior shut out Eastern Michigan, throwing a complete game and notching her first win of the season.
While Ricciardone’s first game back was an impressive performance in itself, her highlight of the season would come a week later when Harvard flew to Louisiana to play in the Purple and Gold Challenge, at which the Crimson faced No. 23 LSU in a homecoming of sorts for Ricciardone.
With as many wins as losses on the season, Harvard seemed to have the chips stacked against it in its attempt to beat the nationally-ranked Tigers. In a duel that took over three hours, Ricciardone was relentlesss, firing 181 pitches and facing 46 batters, while letting none of them cross the plate. Finally, in the top of the 12th frame, junior shortstop Emily Gusse singled to center field, driving in the game’s first run. Ricciardone took care of the rest from there, even striking out the final batter to end the game.
“Laura pitched incredibly at LSU,” co-captain Kasey Lange said. “It was a homecoming for the ages. They couldn’t hit her, they couldn’t put the ball in play…and she was the catalyst for us all.”
In a season that included an 18-game winning streak, a program home run record, and seven All-Ivy selections, Ricciardone’s gutty performance that day was the highlight of it all.
The junior went on to earn her third All-Ivy accolade, this time as a first team selection. Ricciardone finished the season leading all Ivy pitchers with a 1.53 earned-run average.
In addition, Ricciardone was named the team’s Most Outstanding Pitcher, tied a record with five Ivy League Pitcher of the Week awards, and was given the nod as a member of the NFCA All-Region team.
“Returning, Laura knew she was going to be our ace and she worked hard for it,” Lange said. “She is going to grow even more over the summer and fall, and when she comes back senior year, she’ll be lights out.”
—Staff writer Andrew Farber can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.