Wheaton dances past softball for sweep

By Kate Fratar

The temperatures may be dropping again, but there’s no denying that softball is in full swing and ready for another busy spring.

After opening the season with an 8–2 record from their week in the Sunshine State, the Maroons (10–4) returned to the Midwest with a bulked-up offense that took center stage in this week’s games. The squad continued their hot streak from Florida with a sweep over North Central (8–4) Tuesday but then dropped a high-scoring two-game set to Wheaton (10–6) at Stagg Thursday.

Last year’s ace, fourth-year Petra Wade (6–2, 1.92 ERA), took the mound for the first showdown against North Central in a late 3–1 win for the South Siders. While Wade allowed just one run on five hits in a complete game effort, fourth-year Lori Potacki (3–2, 2.45 ERA) was there to match her pitch for pitch and held Chicago’s lineup scoreless and hitless through the first five frames.

“She’s not the fastest pitcher, and she relies on a lot of junk and drop balls,” Wade said. “But we tend to struggle a bit more against slower pitching.”

With extra innings looming in a clear pitchers’ duel, the Maroons got the best of Potacki and rallied for all three of their runs in the sixth while collecting four of the squad’s total five hits on the game. Second-year catcher Vanessa Pineros struck the first blow with an RBI triple to right center, while classmate third baseman Jen Jacobson and third-year outfielder Dominique Marshall each roped RBI doubles to lock up the 3–1 win.

“Everyone really had that pitching timed and jumped on her all at once,” Wade said. “North Central has always been a big rival, and we weren’t about to lose to them.”

The big cuts from Marshall and Jacobson showcased the revamped offense that Chicago unveiled on its Florida trip. During the spring break stretch, the Maroons outscored opponents 78–28 and proved that their 2007 lineup has very few holes. Almost every day, a different player stepped up as the game’s leading hitter, a good indication that the squad won’t have to rely on the heavy lumber of a few power hitters like last year.

Rookies like hurlers Kathleen Duffy (.415 BA, 8 RBI) and Lauren White (.400 BA, 11 RBI) have added to the noticeably improved returning batters. The mix of newcomers and veterans has already pushed across 35 runs while last year’s squad notched only 71 by the end of the postseason run.

After taking time to get to North Central’s pitching in the opener, the Maroons started right away against first-year Jenna Prieto (5–2, 0.93 ERA) for the 4–2 win. Pineros was at the heart of the action once again with a RBI double in the third to score the squad’s first run of a three-run inning. She leads Chicago hitters with a staggering .488 average and is tied as the top run producer with 11 RBI.

“She always works really hard and puts extra effort into her hitting,” Wade said. “Everyone assumes that she’s going to be a lefty slap hitter and starts bringing their fielders in. But she has a really strong bat and then just crushes the ball over their heads.”

While North Central answered Pineros and the Maroons in their half of the inning with two runs to close in on the visitors 3–2, Chicago’s pitching and defense managed to protect the thin lead. Fourth-year starter Lauren Hula (1–1, 1.11 ERA) went 5 1/3 before handing the ball to White, who recorded the save. Third-year first baseman Cassie Wierenga gave White and the team a little breathing room for the final three outs when she belted a solo homer in the seventh for the 4–2 advantage.

Chicago kept up the same strong offensive efforts in the home opener Thursday against the Thunder, but it wasn’t enough to get them past the visitors. In the opening game, a four-run slipped away, while the capper saw the lead change hands before finally settling in Wheaton’s favor.

Early on in the first game, it looked like the squad had another win in the bag after starting pitcher White (2–2, 3.32 ERA) topped off a four-run second with a two RBI single. For the first three innings, the Thunder struggled to make sense of White, and she retired the lineup in order the first time through.

In the fourth with its second look at White, Wheaton struck for four to tie the game. After two scoreless innings, the visitors pulled ahead for good in the seventh with a two-run double off the bat of third-year center fielder Sarah Callicutt, pushing the Thunder past Chicago 6–4.

The Maroons were in store for another upset in the second game after another early four-run explosion to capture the lead fell short in securing the win. With Wheaton burning Wade for seven runs on seven hits, the squad struck the final nail in Chicago’s coffin with a three-run fifth. Fourth-year shortstop Jessica Mayhew blasted her first career dinger, a shot to left in the sixth, but third-year Beth Miller silenced the home team in the seventh for the save and the 7–6 win.

“They were definitely rough losses,” Wade said. “There were some situational plays that we weren’t prepared to make and that we will have to correct in practice tomorrow. But in a positive light, it was nice to see that our offense could least keep the score close. In years past, we would’ve been blown out of the water if our pitching had an off day, but now we can keep up.”

Hosting this Saturday, the Maroons will get another chance to unleash its new power offense when it goes head-to-head against Illinois Wesleyan (10–2). The Titans will be ready to light up the scorboard alongside Chicago with their fearsome lineup batting .372 and driving in 75 runs on the season.