The butterflies were out in full force for then-junior Rachel Brown as she took the mound to begin the Ivy League Championship Series against Cornell last May.
“I was definitely nervous,” Brown said. “It was one of the most nerve-wracking games I’ve ever pitched in.”
For three years, the Big Red had Brown’s number. In her first matchup against Cornell as a freshman, Brown was so nervous that she plunked the first two batters she faced in what would be a losing effort.
At the end of Brown’s sophomore campaign, the Big Red scored three runs against Brown to win the first game in the Ivy League Championship Series. Cornell went on to win the series, 2-1, claiming a second straight Ivy title. Brown was unable to exact retribution in the following matchup in the middle of last year, as the Big Red tallied six runs against her in an 8-1 win.
In the 2011 Ivy League Championship Series preview, the Cornell Athletics Department wrote that the squad’s ace, then-senior Elizabeth Dalrymple, “has had more success against the Crimson over her career than Brown has had against the Big Red,” which was undoubtedly true. But Brown was ready to rewrite the script.
The junior forced a groundout to record the first out of the opening game and immediately gained confidence, striking out the final two batters of the inning. Brown recorded a three-hit shutout in the 5-0 win, overcoming her demons and giving Harvard a great chance to return to the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2007.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” Brown said. “I proved to myself that I could overcome the mental block that I had with that team.”
She came up big again on the following day. Sophomore Laura Ricciardione had pitched five shutout innings to start Game 2 but was taken out because her knee was bothering her, according to Brown. Harvard coach Jenny Allard called on Brown to step in for the starter and seal the deal. She struck out five of the nine batters she faced to secure a 4-0 win.
“The last at-bat seemed to be the longest at-bat I’d ever pitched,” Brown said. “I remember seeing her swing and miss…and immediately running to the catcher before turning to our seniors. They were just so happy.”
Brown’s strong performance during the weekend earned her the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year award over Cornell’s Dalrymple, who took home the distinction in the previous two seasons.
“Being honored as Pitcher of the Year was a direct result of how she threw in the championship series,” Allard said. “She had some mental struggles against Cornell and really just focused and kept working through them and completely dominated and shut them out in the championship series. She had to break through another level in her pitching and she did that.”
After the post-championship euphoria subsided, the softball team traveled to Tuscon, Ariz. for the NCAA Championship Regional Tournament. There, the squad was humbled by Arizona and Texas Tech, losing both games by a combined score of 17-0 before flying back home.
Coming into this year, Brown and the Crimson are looking to get another bid to the tournament and make a dent on the national stage.
“Last year, we viewed every extra game as a bonus,” Brown said. “This year, it’s our chance to prove we can do so much more in regionals. My motivation is getting back there and doing whatever I can to lead my team to regionals.”
Even after winning Ivy League Pitcher of the Year honors and hoisting the conference title, Brown is still motivated by being spurned by a number of top programs as a high school senior.