In the world of collegiate sports, every year sees different players come and go, and the departures of seasoned veterans are always met by arrivals of young stars looking to make an impact in their time on the team. Some years, though, see more departures than others.
Last season’s Harvard softball team had one of its best seasons ever, led by one of the greatest performances by a Crimson pitcher in the school’s history. Co-captain Rachel Brown carried the team to the regional finals of NCAA Tournament, before it ultimately fell to 16-seed Washington.
During the regular season, Brown finished with a 2.17 ERA and placed fifth in the nation in strikeouts per seven innings with an average of 9.7.
Her play and the team’s bats pushed the Crimson further in the national tournament than any Harvard team since 1996. It was also the Crimson’s second straight Ivy championship.
Now, with the noticeable void left behind by Brown and fellow ace Laura Ricciardone, the rest of the squad will have to rebuild around a new collection of pitchers.
The team, however, is used to saying goodbye to key players and rebuilding around new teammates. The year before Brown joined the team, the program graduated Shelly Madick, the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year in 2007, and still went on to win the Ivy League title.
Now, it is looking to do the same with a pitching staff that is once again young and unseasoned.
“This year we have two freshman pitchers and one sophomore pitcher, so we are in the process of having them gain experience and allowing them to mature into seasoned college pitchers,” Crimson coach Jenny Allard said via e-mail. “The cycle repeats, just like it did with Rachel. It’s always a challenge to keep the same level of success when you graduate a pitcher of Rachel’s caliber, but we must allow our pitching staff to develop in the same way that Rachel did during her four years.”
Allard actively recruited pitchers in preparation for the hole left by Brown, gaining freshmen Morgan Groom and Jamie Halula, who joined sophomore Gabrielle Ruiz to form a pitching trio.
“[Rachel leaving] has been a huge absence for sure, but it’s more that we’ve had to change up our strategy for this year,” Ruiz says. “We no longer have that one person we can rely on, so it’s definitely more of a joint effort. [The rest of the pitchers] are all different, so everyone contributes to that.”
Ruiz pitched briefly in two games during her freshman year, but used the opportunity to learn under Brown and Ricciardone. Groom and Halula came into the spring season with no college experience and started right off the bat.
“I knew when I got recruited here that [Brown] was the main pitcher, and that she was really, really good.” Groom says. “I knew that it was going to be the three of us as a trio that were going to have to replace her.”
So far teammates have positive things to say about the two newest additions to the pitching squad aiming to fill Brown’s shoes.
“They’re getting acclimated,” Ruiz says. “It’s a big thing to come in as a freshman and know you’re going to start, but they’re handling the pressure. It makes us a young staff, but it also means they’re learning well how to work together. The three of us can combine to pitch together.”
No one pitcher has solidified herself as the dominant ace, and as a result, all three players are being used regularly in games with roughly the same frequency. Groom leads all three with 50.0 IP, but Halula and Ruiz have pitched 42.2 and 32.1 innings, respectively. As a comparison, Brown and Ricciardone were on the mound for a combined 314 out of 339.1 innings last season.