Softball advances to NCAA Regional: Maroons headed to Eau Claire for first-round date with Coe

By Tim Murphy

Last season, softball took advantage of its surprise postseason selection to pull off a first-round upset of third-seeded Coe. Returning to the NCAAs with a high-flying offense and deeper pitching staff, the Maroons look to repeat their opening game triumph of 2006 and take the next step to tournament success.

Earning its second consecutive at-large bid to the seven-team NCAA Great Lakes Regional, fourth-seeded Chicago (25–9) will take on fifth-seeded Coe (27–12) Thursday in Eau Claire, WI. The champion and the winner of the consolation bracket from the double-elimination tournament will go on to compete at the national championships May 18–22 in Salem, VA. Heading into the regional, UW–Oshkosh (34–9) holds the first seed, followed by Illinois Wesleyan (31–12), then Augustana (IL) (30–12), with sixth-seeded UW–Eau Claire, and seventh-seeded St. Norbert (20–12) rounding out the competition.

With three wins over the top two seeds already this season, the Maroons have the confidence and the experience to take care of business in Wisconsin. In only its second series after returning from spring break, Chicago swept Illinois Wesleyan at Stagg March 31, taking 5–1 and 2–0 decisions.

Bookending that series, the squad closed out its regular season campaign with a doubleheader split with Oshkosh May 1, winning 2–1 before falling 6–4. The positive results against top regional teams not only gave the team a mental boost, but also became one of the main factors that pushed the Maroons into the postseason.

“We’re always nervous because we’re independent, and so we can’t automatically qualify. All the numbers have to work out,” head coach Ruth Kmak said. “We just try to schedule the best teams that we can. A big factor in getting in is competing against ranked teams.”

Thursday’s matchup is a rematch of last year’s surprise victory, during which the Maroons snuck past the higher-seeded Kohawks 1–0 before dropping their next two games to exit the tourney.

The victory came about thanks to a three-hitter by then–third-year Petra Wade and heads-up baserunning by classmate shortstop Jessica Mayhew. With Wade and Coe second-year righty Ellie Schultz both returning to lead their staffs this spring, this week’s contest has all the makings of another pitchers’ duel.

Although Schultz held Chicago to just five hits and a walk last year, the Maroons will meet her with new force after witnessing a power surge unparalleled in recent years. The squad has swatted a school record 25 home runs this season, with first-year Kathleen Duffy pacing the squad with seven long balls—the third highest total in program history—and Mayhew chipping in with five of her own. While the South Siders have upped their offense, Coe has lost several big bats from last season’s attack.

The Maroons’ attack has been boosted with the emergence of the likes of third-year catcher Vanessa Pineros as a model of consistency at the dish. Pineros has reached base in more than half of her plate appearances, mixing power and average to the tune of a team-best .607 slugging percentage.

“In years past, it was always my job to hold them to zero,” said Wade, who is second on the squad in hitting with a .397 average. “We used to joke that if they got one run, the game’s over. This year, it’s the opposite, like, ‘how many innings until we get five?’ If our team last year could hit this girl, what can our team do this year?”

In addition to the rejuvenated lineup, the emergence of a standout pitching staff behind Wade could help to offset the fatigue that affected Wade last season. With the Maroons set to take on a well rested Titans squad later that evening should they win the opener, fourth-year Lauren Hula and first-year Lauren White could both see action in key situations.

Not assured of a berth because of their lack of conference affiliation, the squad is gunning for one of just six pool B national at-large bids, with a pool C bid serving as a possible—but uncertain—fallback option. The bid is the fourth for Chicago during Kmak’s eight-year reign.