In a crucial weekend, the 21st-ranked University of Chicago women's softball team won five out of six games against opponents University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, UW-Oshkosh, and regional rival 10th-ranked Illinois-Wesleyan. The lone loss came in the second game against Illinois-Wesleyan. With this weekend's strong performance, the Maroons (16-3) have put themselves in excellent shape for the NCAA playoff-bid hunt.
"I think we are in a strong position for the playoffs right now," head coach Ruth Kmak said. "Anytime we can finish with single-digit losses the tournament committee is going to have to look at us."
The weekend's games began at Stagg Field in a Friday doubleheader against UW-Lacrosse. In the first game, second-year pitcher Hannah Roberts threw a two-hit shutout, and Chicago prevailed 3-0, with all three runs coming in the bottom of the sixth inning.
In the second half of the doubleheader, third-year catcher Annie Yaniga blasted her second home run of the year, a solo shot in the bottom of the sixth. First-year lefty Lauren Hula gave Chicago the win, pitching a complete game shutout, the first of her career, for the 3--0 victory.
"Our offense has improved immensely from last year, and I feel that it has been a determining factor in many of our wins," Roberts said. "Annie has consistently been a driving force at the plate. Our defense is solid, and I believe that it will continue to improve throughout the rest of our season."
On Saturday, the Maroons swept UW-Oshkosh with victories of 1-0 and 3-0. Roberts and first-year pitcher Petra Wade each picked up complete game shutouts to lead the Maroons. Yaniga had three of the four Maroon RBI in the two games.
On Sunday, Chicago faced their toughest opponent so far this season: Number 10 Illinois-Wesleyan (14-3) on the road. The Maroons split the two games with the Titans in a pair of tight battles that appear to set up a potential postseason match-up. Roberts picked up her 10th victory of the year in the first game, a 1-0 complete game shutout.
In the second game, Wesleyan scored three runs in the third inning, partially due to a questionable call by the home plate umpire. In a play at home, second-year catcher Randi Leppla clearly tagged the runner not once, but two times before the Illinois player was able to touch the plate. The umpire missed both of the tags, allowing the eventual game-winning run to score and setting up another.
Despite the loss, Kmak remained optimistic about the weekend and the split. "Five out of six is a really good, positive thing," she said. "IW is the toughest team we face in the region, so it's a good split."
"We hit all three pitchers they had, and their runs came on weak hits. We caught some tough breaks; we were hitting the ball hard but right to them. However we were playing good offense, executing our plays, and doing the little things right. This weekend really gave us a feeling of confidence."
As has been the case all season, the Maroons were led by the superb pitching of Roberts, who for her recent performance was given the Division III Player of the Week Award. Over the course of the week, Roberts went 5-0 with four complete game shutouts. She lowered her season ERA to an astounding 0.19 and improved her overall record to 10-1.
Chicago's sports conference, the UAA, does not offer an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in softball. As a result, the Maroons play as an independent team. They compete for one of 8 at-large bids given to non-conference winners, out of 43 total bids given for postseason play. The Maroons have had to play a tough schedule in order to impress the selection committee.
The tournament is divided into eight regions with five or six teams competing in each one, and the regional winners go on to compete against each other for the National Championship.
Last year Chicago lost in the regional finals to Wesleyan. The team would love nothing more than to be back in the same position as last year and get its revenge.
"We just have to keep performing well in our region," Kmak said. "If we can be successful at that, we can get a bid, and I see us going at least as far as we did last year."