Grand day at the Lake for softball

By Kate Fratar

After a Cinderella season last spring, time was running out for softball to show it could still make the glass slipper fit. With a pair of wins required to preserve its NCAA hopes, the Maroons relied on the long ball to stay on track and to hint that after a long wait, all the elements of the game might finally be coming together for them.

Riding a pair of decisive home runs to victory, the Maroons (20–8) took two from Lake Forest (14–14) Tuesday to complete their first sweep since shutting down Illinois Wesleyan (28–10) March 31 at Stagg. The squad secured a 4–3 decision in the first game on the strength of a two-run shot from first-year righty Lauren White and claimed the nightcap 7–4 after a grand slam from third-year left fielder Dominique Marshall.

“It’s just a great balance,” said head coach Ruth Kmak of this year’s lineup. “Offense has been a focus of ours in practice leading up to the season for the past couple of years. I hope it keeps exploding.”

After playing catch-up for most of Saturday’s split at UW–Whitewater (18–12), Chicago jumped ahead in both games with the Foresters and never surrendered the lead. Fourth-year ace Petra Wade (12–5, 2.41) helped her own cause by knocking in the first two runs of the opener.

With two outs and runners on the corners in the Maroons’ first at-bat, Wade singled to plate her third-year battery-mate Vanessa Pineros from third. She promptly got caught trying to stretch the hit into a double, ending the inning. Wade went up the middle once more in the third, again driving in Pineros for the 2–0 advantage.

Solid as always from the mound, Wade kept the Foresters hitless through the first four frames. They eventually got their timing down against the veteran, though, collecting eight hits including a homer in the sixth to tag her for three earned runs. Chicago’s defense, which had committed 18 errors in the last six games, tightened up to keep Lake Forest’s damage to a minimum.

An error in right field by White on a leadoff hit in the fifth could have put the Maroons in a tight spot in the later innings, but a clean relay into third base caught the runner to save a run. The Foresters did get on the board in that inning and added two more with their next at-bat, but White’s blast was enough to keep Chicago out in front for the 4–3 win. The rookie collected her second dinger of the season and is batting .337 with a .467 slugging percentage.

“It’s not as fast as what I faced in club ball, but it’s still been hard to adjust to it,” said White of her first season against college pitching. “ have to work on it all the time because it’s easy to get caught out on your front foot.”

Keeping the offense rolling, the South Siders got to work early against first-year Jeannette Andresen (7–6, 3.77), with Pineros and second-year third baseman Jen Jacobson punching back-to-back singles to start the game. Wade came through as the designated hitter with a double to left center, giving fourth-year southpaw Lauren Hula something to work with when she took the mound. After holding the Foresters to an unearned run through three, Hula got taken deep to start the fourth and handed the ball over to White.

“Lauren is someone we like to use as a different pitching style to set the team up,” said Kmak of the lefty, who throws off-speed pitches and has dealt with chronic back trouble in her career. “We bring her in to change the pace, and she’s given us some quality innings.”

With night coming on, the Maroons struck big in the sixth to get a little separation in a 4–2 game. Pineros set things in motion with a single, and two walks dealt by Andresen helped load the bases for Marshall. The left fielder unloaded on one of Andresen’s offerings for her second dinger and the squad’s 18th of the season.

Chicago demonstrated that it had bolstered its lineup when it took in 78 runs over the 10-game trip to Florida, but the bounty of homers reaffirms the team’s new clout. With their latest blasts, the 2007 Maroons have matched the home run total of the last four seasons combined.

“Offense has been a focus of ours in practice for the past couple of years,” Kmak said. “Sometimes it takes a while for people to get their swings and recognize mistakes. People were getting that early in practice this year.”

The South Siders will look to keep up their offensive power when they host Aurora (31–5) today. The visitors are batting .352 as a team and have slugged 26 longballs to go with a stingy 1.27 ERA by the Spartans’ pitching staff.

“I think the best course will be for our pitching to not try and strike them out, but to let our defense, which has been pretty strong, do some work,” White said.