The softball team is heating up, and its timing couldn't be better. The Maroons are currently riding a six-game winning streak, including five shutouts, and are anticipating continued success as the regular season begins to wind down.
"If we play our game, including solid pitching and timely hitting, we are capable of being successful against any team in the country," said head coach Ruth Kmak.
First-year pitcher Hannah Roberts agrees. "I have been very impressed with the team's performance recently. I think we have a lot of potential and we have been performing on a consistently high level overall," Roberts said.
The team easily swept Elmhurst on April 15, winning the opener 9-0 and the nightcap 2-0. The next doubleheader was on April 17 at home when the Maroons shutout UW-Oshkosh 5-0 and 1-0. The biggest story, however, came on Tuesday when the team squared off against highly-respected Lake Forest. The runner-up in the 2002 NCAA Division III championship and a ranked team in 2003, Lake Forest fell to the Maroons 2-0 in the opener and 5-2 later that evening.
"Beating Lake Forest was huge for us because they are nationally recognized, and we showed everyone, as well as ourselves, that we can play with any team," said first-year centerfielder Kara Thaw.
The Maroons did well to exploit Lake Forest's weakness in the field. Fourth-year shortstop Cristina Metildi and first-year catcher/outfielder Randi Leppla worked the short game by flapping when at bat. The strategy worked well as Lake Forest did not have the mobility and speed to mount any kind of successful defense.
During this most recent winning streak, the pitching and the hitting have been very solid and continue to improve. Roberts, now 9-2, is throwing at her best, fanning 11 against Elmhurst, 11 against Lake Forest, and eight against UW-Oshkosh. Fourth-year Megan Kunz, now 6-4, is reaching the peak of her collegiate career, according to Kmak. "Since we have good pitching, it takes the pressure off the offense, and we are able to relax and focus at the plate," Thaw said.
The rewards of consistent pitching are showing, especially as Thaw, Leppla, Metildi, and first-year third baseman Kayti Fuhr continue to provide ample run support. Thaw alone collected a pair of RBIs against Lake Forest and a run and an RBI against UW-Oshkosh. The rest of the team has also been hitting very well and has come through offensively in clutch situations. "Before the past few games, we had been hitting the ball really well, just not getting the consecutive hits we needed to score," Kmak said.
Also contributing to the success of the Maroons is the high level of play from the catchers and the rest of the defense. "The catchers [second-year Annie Yaniga and Leppla] deserve a lot of credit. They are doing a great job helping the pitchers. They are calling the right pitches at the right times, and they are doing all they can to keep the ball in front of them," said second-year second baseman Julie Wiorkowski.
"I think the best part of our team is that if one or two people are not playing their best game, the other seven or eight on the field will definitely pick it up," said first-year utility player Kate Rhodes. "We pick each other up, and we back each other up constantly. That's why we keep winning."
The current 16-7 record of the team is impressive, but it could have been better under the right circumstances. The team lost a lot of early games due to the weather and the games will not be rescheduled. "We could have won at least six if not seven of the games that we lost due to weather. We were supposed to play UW-LaCrosse and they were swept by a team that we swept," Matildi said. "If we could have played those cancelled games, it would have brought our record up a lot and it would have made getting into regionals a lot easier."
As for earning a spot in the post season, this next week will be a critical one. If Chicago wins all of its scheduled games, it will greatly improve the team's chance of being selected. Today the Maroons face Aurora at home, but the games in the triangular invitational on Saturday at Bloomington, Illinois are especially important. There they will face two ranked teams, Illinois Wesleyan and Washington University. IWU is the stronger of the two, and Chicago split a doubleheader with Wesleyan earlier in the season. "Beating Wesleyan will give us a winning record against them which should help us qualify for regionals," Thaw said.