April 17, 2009

Chicago enters final stretch

In a 38-day season, there isn’t such a thing as rest.With 18 games—more than half of the softball team’s calendar—in the books through the first three weeks of the season, softball got the closest thing to rest that it could this week: five days off.Five days gave the Maroons time to reflect on a solid first half, time to go work out the kinks that have fed their season-high four-game losing streak, and time to get ready for the toughest part of the schedule: a 12-day, 14-game stretch to close the season.“It’s grueling, it’s a grueling schedule right now,” head coach Ruth Kmak said. “It’s pretty much almost 50 percent of our schedule within a 10-day period. It’s going to be tough, but hopefully exciting.”The Maroons (10–8) kick off their week-and-a-half marathon this afternoon with a doubleheader against Carthage (16–8), in which they hope to escape a hitting funk that has persisted since their last win on April 4. Since then, Chicago has combined for just four runs on 14 hits, never managing more than six hits in a game.“In the games against Wesleyan, Loras, and Beloit, we needed to step it up offensively,” first-year Liz Payonk said. “In general, our pitching and defense have been strong, but we cannot win games without putting up a solid amount of runs on the board. It is a matter of getting out of our own heads. We all know that every person put in that lineup can crush the ball; we’ve seen it happen in previous games. We just need to relax at the plate and hit the ball like we have the potential to.”For Kmak and her squad, the drought at the plate has been self-sustaining; when one batter has struggled at the plate, the next hitter struggled as well.“When we score, we typically score in bunches. It’s a lot of the team sort of feeding off each other,” Kmak said. “If we can get on a roll and have a couple people have good at-bats in row, I think can put things together and be successful.”While the team has spent the week focusing on more selectivity and patience at the plate, Chicago has found its defense picking up after a rough start to the year in the field. After compiling 32 errors in the first 14 games of the season, the South Siders have committed just one in the last four games.With the most important two weeks of the season remaining, the Maroons will need strong performances in the field when they play teams like UW–Whitewater (23–3), last year’s runner-up for the national title and their opponent April 24.Whitewater is one of three remaining opponents that qualified for NCAAs a season ago. The other two, UW–Oshkosh (15–9) and Aurora (18–3), come to Stagg this Sunday and Thursday, respectively.The Maroons, however, are no strangers to tough competition. Kmak always sets a blistering pace for her team, with a strong schedule becoming tradition at Chicago.“Coach makes sure of that every year,” third-year Lauren White said. “There are some teams like Aurora who pad their schedules and have ridiculous records like 30–2, but they’re actually not that good a team; they just have really bad schedules. We’ve often gone into the postseason with records that are worse than other teams’, but our strength of schedule has really helped a lot.”It’s tough to point to an important game for the Maroons at this point because all of the games are important. The team has been upset a few times already this season—last weekend’s losses to Beloit and Loras being two examples—so Chicago’s NCAA hopes depend on the South Siders picking up as many quality wins as possible.“We pretty much need to get some good wins over this next week and half to realize those goals because these games coming up can really make or break it,” White said. “Sweeping teams like Whitewater and Oshkosh would be really important toward getting into the postseason.”While the task of playing 14 games in less than two weeks could be draining, White predicted that the biggest challenge of this stretch will be psychological.“We’re going as far as three hours away, and it can be hard to be sitting down for three hours and then jump right out and having to play a really good game against Whitewater, so it’s really just staying focusing more than anything,” she said. “Physically, we can beat any team out there, but especially with four days in a row, it’s keeping focused and staying mentally tough through all of that.”Even in such a compact season, five days off might be too much for this Maroons squad. After all of last season’s struggles, Chicago is excited about what it has done already this year and is eager to hit the field for the home stretch.“We can create our own destiny. If we can play well and get some wins here, we can put ourselves in a good position,” Kmak said. “The competition’s going to be rough ahead, but they’re all teams that we can compete with. I think we’re looking forward to it; we’re looking forward to getting out and playing.”