May 5, 2006

Softball ends solid season on down note

With its regular season coming to an end, the softball team has plenty of reasons to feel good about itself. While their bats fell silent down the stretch, the Maroons exceeded expectations and showed that any feat is within their reach.

After falling 1–0 and 2–1 at the hands of UW–Whitewater Tuesday, Chicago (19–13) split a doubleheader against 24th-ranked Illinois Wesleyan (30–10) 1–0, 0–3 to complete their fifth winning season in the past six years. Third-year ace righty Petra Wade (18–7, 1.22) went the distance in both contests, notching a three-hit shutout of the Titans in the front end before surrendering three earned runs on eight hits in the nightcap loss.

“Everyone said we were going to have a ‘bad’ or ‘down’ year, and we still ended well over .500,” fourth-year designated hitter Kate Rhodes said. “I think that we pushed through a lot of adversity and worked really hard and believed in ourselves.”

The team was even in contention for a playoff berth through the last week of games. Unfortunately, that dream ended as the Maroons were swept by the Warhawks. Wade turned in a yeoman’s effort in both ends but was victimized by a homer in the bottom of the sixth in the first game and allowed a walkoff, two-out single with a runner on second in the bottom of the seventh in the second. Her teammates were stymied at the plate, managing just five hits in the first game and being unable to push any of 10 runners across in the second.

Managing only a solo home run off the bat of fourth-year first-baseman Rachel Cohen in the fifth inning of the first game against the Titans, Chicago continued its second-half trend of offensive futility. In the second contest, they touched IWU fourth-year righty Katie Frawley (10–1, 1.00) for just two hits in her complete game performance. In their front-end victory, the Maroons totaled only three hits.

After winning 11 of their first 14 games behind the big bats of Rhodes (.282, 14 RBI), classmate third baseman Kayti Fuhr (.320, 10 RBI), and second-year left fielder Dominique Marshall (.292, 2 HR, 11 RBI), the Maroons looked unstoppable at the plate. Things took a dramatic change midway through the season at the annual IWU Invite April 8–9. Chicago fell 5–2 and 5–4 to 14th-ranked Wash U (33–5), lost 3–1 to Fontbonne (31–9), and got shutout 3–0 by Maryville (23–16).

“The second half of our season always tends to be tougher than the first half in terms of quality of opponents, the number of road games, and the overall physical health of the team,” Rhodes said.

The schedule didn’t get any easier from there on out, as the Maroons’ faced a number of tough squads including Aurora (32–8) and Hope (27–11) en route to an 8–6 finish over their last 14 contests of the season. Stymied at the plate, Chicago scored only 38 runs in the last 16 games of their season after plating 60 in the first 16.

While their offensive output fell short, the Maroons made up for it with solid glovework game after game. After shaky defense led to unearned runs early in the season, including the game winning run for Wellsley in Chicago’s 2–1 defeat March 21st, they settled down, committing only three errors across their final eight contests.

“Everyone did their part and made a big play at some point,” Rhodes said. “This year was, more than anything else, a team effort.”

While the players’ fielding and gritty determination contributed to the Maroons’ success, it was essentially Wade’s lights-out pitching that spearheaded the team’s surprising run. With the loss of three-time All-American Hannah Roberts (2005 stats: 16–4, 0.36), Wade was thrust into her spot as Chicago’s primary hurler one year earlier than expected.

“I’m not sure what changed in me this year,” Wade said. “I was far from pleased with my past two seasons, but it didn’t really matter that much because Hannah was always there to save the day. This year, that wasn’t an option, and I had to step up.”

Understanding the commitment and work this would require of her, she spent last winter working tirelessly with assistant coach Kelly Ostler on strengthening her arm and sharpening her pitches.

“It took me about halfway through the season to really think I had it in me,” Wade said.

From the moment she first took the mound this year, Wade proved that she was more than up to the task. She recorded 15 complete games, fanned 158, and held opposing batters to a .183 average.

With Rhodes, Fuhr, Cohen, and righty Courtney Uchytil all set to graduate in June, the Maroons are prepared to build upon the legacy of their fourth-years. The departure of these four stars will usher in Wade and her classmates, shortstop Jess Mayhew (.244, 7 RBI), center fielder Nancy Bugajski (.226, 4 RBI), and southpaw Lauren Hula (0–4, 4.20) as leaders of a determined and seasoned squad next year.

“I’m more proud of our team this year than I could ever really explain,” Wade said. “We don’t have the greatest record in the world, but I would say our team overall was stronger this year than last. Every girl contributed something huge to our team’s success.”