Going into the ECAC tournament last weekend, the Harvard softball team knew that Cornell had improved greatly in recent seasons. But the Crimson didn't know just how much.
As it turned out, enough to win the title. Cornell took two out of three games from Harvard during the two-day tournament in Fairfield, Conn., as the Crimson was the ECAC runner-up for the second time in three years.
Still, Harvard (32-19) enjoyed its most wins in a season ever, topping a 28-14 mark in 1995. That year, Harvard fell in the ECAC finals to Providence.
The ECACs is a four-team, double-elimination tournament for the top Eastern teams that didn't make the NCAAs. This year the field included among others, top-ranked Maryland and No. 4 Fairfield. Harvard was ranked second, having swept Cornell in a two-game series earlier this season, 8-2 and 4-3.
That was in the past, however, as Cornell opened the tournament on Saturday by beating Harvard, 5-1, in eight innings--a regulation softball game is seven innings.
The loss would set the tone for the Crimson offensively for the weekend. Harvard's offense was erratic for four out of the five games, averaging 2.25 runs in them. An 8-0 win in the finals against Cornell was the exception; since that was the Big Red's first loss of the tournament, Harvard had to defeat Cornell once more.
That didn't happen, as the Big Red built a 6-0 lead over the first four innings and coasted to a 6-3 win.
"Overall, it was a disappointment," said freshman shortstop Deborah Abeles. "We went in confident that we could beat those teams on the first day. But we didn't.
"[Cornell] has improved a lot from past years--it was the same team we'd seen before, but we didn't perform offensively."
In the second game on Saturday, Harvard defeated host Fairfield, 2-1, to stay alive in the tournament. Then, surprisingly Cornell topped Maryland--the Atlantic Coast Conference co-champions--which pitted the Terrapins against the Crimson in the first Sunday game.
That game, a 3-0 win for Harvard, turned out to be perhaps the Crimson's best of the weekend. Sophomore pitcher Kathleen Brown went the distance for the shutout, and Harvard knocked home three runs in the sixth inning to earn another shot at Cornell.
"[Harvard coach Jenny Allard] said that that was probably one of the best games we've played this year," said co-captain Katina Lee. "The first team that scored was going to win that game, that was us. We kept the momentum, and Kathleen did a great job."
Next came the finals against Cornell, in which the Crimson had to sweep the Big Red to win the title. In the first game, junior Heather Brown picked up where the other Brown left off, tossing a five-inning shutout as Harvard won by the eight-run slaughter rule.
This was the only time all weekend that the Crimson bats were on fire. Sophomore catcher Terri Teller smacked a homer, Abeles had two hits and three RBIs and sophomore Karen Rice's RBI in the bottom of the fifth ensured that the mercy rule would be activated.
"I think the thing was that we got the inning going, and once we scored one run we were able to score more," Teller said.
However, Cornell took back the momentum in the final game. Heather Brown started the game for Harvard, but the Big Red was able to time her pitches this time and smoked a total of six runs off her and reliever Tasha Cupp.
The Crimson got its offense together in the fifth inning, putting on a three-run rally to make the game close again. Abeles went 3-for-4 with an RBI and a run in the loss, and Harvard outhit Cornell 10-8.
For Harvard, the most disappointing facet of the defeat was that the offense had just shown what it could do in the previous game, with eight runs over five innings. The potential was there, but the product wasn't.
"They just hit when they had runners in scoring position," Lee said. "I think that it was great that we were able to step up in last couple innings to a get couple runs, but it should have never been 6-0."