As the second Colonial in a row struck out swinging in the bottom of the fourth with the team trailing 4-2 Sunday afternoon against Saint Louis, the softball team looked poised to continue its streak of inconsistency and drop another Atlantic 10 series.
The Colonials had won eight straight non-conference games heading into A-10 play but were stymied by league opponents in late March. Games against La Salle, Saint Bonaventure, Massachusetts and George Mason left GW with a weak 2-7 A-10 record and dwindling confidence as the team prepared to face the Billikens (24-14, 9-5 A-10).
For that reason, Sunday’s come-from-behind, 9-5 rubber match decision was more than just the Colonials’ first conference series win. It also showed what the young team is capable of when guided by offensive veteran leadership, especially in close contests.
“I think this is the most proud of any team I’ve ever coached right now. This moment,” head coach Stacey Schramm said. “This whole first half of the season has been so frustrating because that’s the team I know they can be. I’m glad we finally showed it.”
The 20-player roster, including 13 underclassmen, combined for 43 runs in that eight-game stint prior to league play, but dipped to a combined 22 runs in nine games against tougher A-10 opponents. This weekend, however, the Colonials were able to rally around a strong offensive effort by team leaders, totaling 20 runs across three games.
After conceding another run in the top of the fifth, which left the Colonials down three, senior shortstop Tori Valos spurred the inspired comeback in the bottom half of the frame with a two-run single off a gritty at-bat.
“This is our turning point as a team,” Valos said. “There’s just a link that hit all of us today that just brought us all together.”
In addition to improved play over the weekend, several upperclassmen have had impressive turnarounds since last season’s disappointing 4-12 A-10 finish.
Schramm said it was “really important” for younger players to see the leaders playing well.
“If they see Tori struggle, they feel like, ‘If she’s struggling then I’m going to be struggling,’” Schramm said.
Senior catcher Samantha Dos Santos would then reach base on an error before she and Valos were both brought home by freshman Alana Anderson to take a 6-5 lead. Dos Santos, who finished last season with a .186 batting average, the team’s lowest, is currently one of the team’s top-five hitters along with Valos, who adds a .365 average, a team-high 36 RBI and a resilient mindset that’s rubbing off on her teammates.
“Tori, even today in the huddle or whenever we were talking, said she never gives up on us. Everyone top to bottom was really working hard today,” said sophomore Bradleigh Breland, who scored twice Sunday.
Junior Carlee Gray, who posted the team’s second-worst batting average last season, has also hit her stride. The first baseman is posting a team-high .371 batting average, good for ninth-best in the A-10, and co-leads GW with 39 hits.
The explosive fifth inning was capped off with a two-run homer by junior Morgan Matetic to put GW up three. Her powerful shot to right-center symbolized both a personal triumph and, the team hopes, the turning of a page on its up-and-down season.
“[Matetic] has been really struggling and she finally broke out of it. I think everyone was almost in tears in the dugout when she hit that out,” Schramm said. “She just fought, had a ton of grit and just wasn’t going down. That’s the mentality we’re getting from everyone now.”
The team’s energy was evident after the win, but Schramm said that though the confidence level is high, GW must continue to stay focused. From here on out, the Colonials must “treat every game like it’s an A-10 Tournament game” to maintain momentum, Schramm said.
Consistent production has also come from the team’s two top sophomores, Breland and Megan Linn. The two weapons are the only underclassmen hitting above .300 and each had a game-high four hits Sunday. And coupled with veteran hitters leading by example at the plate, the season is finally looking up for the Colonials.
The Colonials resume A-10 play on Saturday at noon when they kick off a three-game road series against first-place Dayton.