Softball earns NCAA regional tournament spot

By Dorothea Hunter

A superb regular season for the softball team came to an end last week with the Maroons sweeping a doubleheader from UW-Whitewater, 5-1 and 1-0. The team has now won 11 of its last 12 regular season games, and finishes with a 21-8 record.

On April 20, the National Fastpitch Coaches Association ranked the Maroons 20th in Division III teams. Unranked last year, this spot comes in the wake of impressive performances over regional opponents in the past few weeks.

But the good news did not end there. On Sunday night the entire team gathered in the apartment of third-year utility player Rina Martinez and second-year second baseman Julie Wiorkowski to await word from the NCAA on a possible bid to participate in the 2003 regional tournament. The atmosphere was tense as the women anxiously awaited a phone call from head coach Ruth Kmak.

“[Kmak] told us that she would not call us if we didn’t make it and she said that if she did not call by 1:30 a.m., we should not expect a call,” Wiorkowski said. “I have never seen [fourth-year shortstop Cristina Metildi] so quiet. We were getting really tired, but sure enough, at 12:30 we got the call and we were in. At that point, everyone was screaming and hugging each other.”

The regional tournament will be held this weekend at Illinois-Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. It is a double elimination tournament, and the Maroons first game will be Friday against UAA rival Washington University.

Most players agree that the upcoming games will be some of the toughest of the season. Washington and potential opponent Wesleyan are both ranked higher than the Maroons in the Division III national rankings, though the Bears are seeded below Chicago in the tournament. “Washington University on Friday will be a really tough game because even though we beat them handedly last time, they are still a really good team,” Wiorkowski said.

“We are really excited to get back to Wesleyan,” Martinez said. “We lost to them there, and we really want to play them again so that we can get a chance to level it.” The Maroons are currently 1-2 against Wesleyan.

The victories of the past two weeks sent a strong message to other teams in the region. They swept a doubleheader on April 25 at home against Aurora. On April 26, at a triangular invitational at Illinois-Wesleyan, they beat Washington University 7-1 but lost to Illinois Wesleyan 0-2. A few days later, on April 29, they again swept a doubleheader against UW-Whitewater.

Even though wins against Aurora and Whitewater were not as glamorous as the win against Washington, they were still quality wins. The Maroons had to play very well in each matchup and were under a lot of pressure because they had to sweep each doubleheader to have a chance to qualify for regionals.

The triangular invitational at Wesleyan was certainly the turning point in the season. The Maroons squared off against two nationally ranked teams on the same day, and the win in the opener against Washington University is surely what was able to cement their bid for the regional tournament. “We started hitting right from the start–we got our first run in the first inning,” Metildi said. “They knew what was going to come, and they made quite a few errors. Basically, they fell apart.”

The Wesleyan loss was particularly disappointing because many players felt that the Maroons were the stronger of the two teams. “Defensively we played well. We just didn’t hit. The only thing that was suffering was our hitting,” Metildi said. “It happened in the other time we lost to them–they used one of their worst pitchers. The ball was coming very slow and she had horrible mechanics, and we were thrown off.”

“We come out strong when we need to, but we also have a tendency to not do as well in the second games–we play with less intensity. However, if we can keep playing our game, we should be fine in the post season,” Metildi added.

Last year, the Maroons did not qualify for regionals, as they posted a losing record. In 2001, they lost the first two games of the tournament.

The team expects this year to be different. “I think we have a team [that can] go all the way. We just need to go out and think that we need to win every game. We can’t have the attitude that we can ‘let one go’ [just] because it is a double elimination tournament,” Wiorkowski said.

The players hope their unity, spirit, and talent will carry the Maroons to a successful postseason. “In the toughest games we know that everyone will come through. That has made the biggest difference this year,” Martinez said. “Every game has really been a team effort. Every game from here on will be really tough, but we’re confident we can do really well.”