After its 2020 campaign was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, softball put on a dominant showing in conference play to remain undefeated heading into its final five series.
Forced to abandon its 10-14 season last March, softball has bounced back, notching numerous blowout victories against its pod opponents, including 11 wins by run-rule this season. Head coach Shane Winkler said the Colonials’ (20-7, 12-0 A-10) 11 upperclassmen helped secure their success.
“One of the biggest keys for us is just our maturity and our veteran leadership overall,” Winkler said. “We start nine seniors, whether they’re fourth- or fifth-year seniors, and that’s huge for us when our entire lineup, outside of one first-year kid, is all 21 to 23 years old.”
With 23 rostered players, the team’s largest number in 18 years, Winkler said the squad has taken advantage of the additional year of eligibility granted to athletes due to the pandemic. Three current graduate students – utility Faith Weber, infielder Jenna Cone and utility Jessica Linquist – all returned for a fifth season in the buff and blue.
The squad also added two graduate student transfers – outfielder Olivia Vinyard and infielder Amber Lotz – from Yale and Valparaiso, respectively, who took advantage of the additional year of eligibility.
Winkler said the team has built a winning mentality through intense game planning and a strong focus on reviewing film.
“We set up a flat screen TV inside our dugout during practices that has a continuous loop of the opposing teams’ pitchers,” Winkler said. “So anytime our girls have a water break, anytime they’re waiting to step up to the plate for batting practice or for scrimmaging, they get to look over and and see the pitchers from the team we’re going to be facing that upcoming weekend.”
In 2019, the team set a program record for single-season wins with 44 to earn a share of the A-10 title for the first time. As the Colonials aim to return to their 2019 heights, Cone, who leads the team in home runs — nine — and slugging percentage — .805 — said the offseason work they’ve put in has also contributed to their success.
“We’ve all just come together with all the hard work that we’ve done in the offseason, and it’s really coming together well,” Cone said. “And the team chemistry that we have is also really great, so just having support for each other on and off the field so far has been really good and that’s what sets us apart so far.”
Building team chemistry has been a focal point following the arrival of seven freshmen and two graduate student transfers. Cone added that the squad has worked to bounce back mentally following the cancellation of the 2020 season.
“We knew coming into this season that things would get canceled, things would get shifted, things would be changing all the time,” Cone said. “So us being grateful for every day that we have out on the field, and then being able to roll with the punches and be adaptable, that was something that was set out pretty early on in the season for us.”
The Colonials have missed just four games this season, due to postponements at the start of the season, against Howard and Villanova.
The team was named the A-10 preseason favorite back in February, which Linquist said has empowered the squad.
“One thing that we’ve talked about this season is that pressure is a privilege,” Linquist said. “So it’s good that we have that and we should kind of be in that position, and we know how good we are and that as we get further down the road, we know that we’re going to be the team to beat.”
The team has also been bolstered by the addition of freshman pitcher Alexa Williams, who was named A-10 rookie of the week twice in March. Winkler said Williams has benefited from the mentorship of older teammates and has brought “energy” to the starting lineup.
“When we recruited her, we expected her to be a really good offensive player and a really good pitcher for us,” Winkler said. “We haven’t needed her as much in the circle, but that’s one of the exciting things is we know that she’s going to bring a lot to the table pitching-wise.”
Weber has also contributed to the team’s hot streak, leading the team with senior utility Alessandra Ponce with 29 RBIs. Redshirt junior utility player Sierra Lange has also held a 1.90 ERA through 96 innings pitched this spring, and tops the team with 33 hits so far this year. She has returned to pre-injury form after missing the entirety of the 2020 season.
As the season winds down, Winkler said the squad has “unfinished business” with Fordham, who currently leads the A-10 north division with an undefeated conference record. The two teams are not slated to compete in the regular season due to the A-10 pod system, which schedules teams that are geographically close to play as the pandemic continues.
Winkler said there’s a “good chance” the two teams will face each other in the postseason, but he added that his program is just focused on winning games on their docket.
“Right now, all we get to do is watch what they’re doing in their division, but we’ve got to take care of ourselves before we really focus on what the conference tournament or what a potential championship looks like,” Winkler said. “We’ve really got to focus on every single game we play right now being the most important game of the season.”
The Colonials will gear up for a nonconference doubleheader against James Madison Wednesday at 3 and 5 p.m., respectively.
Belle Long contributed reporting.