May 9, 2006

Suprising softball set for NCAAs

A week ago, it hardly seemed possible. But despite ending the regular season with a whimper, softball is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years.

Riding a strong schedule and benefiting from the expansion of the tourney field from 42 to 59 teams, the sixth-seeded Maroons (19–13) scraped their way into the Great Lakes Regional and are set for a first-round battle with third-seeded Coe (34–10). The squad’s postseason hopes looked all but dead when they dropped three of their final four games on the road to rivals UW–Whitewater (25–15) and Illinois Wesleyan (32–12), but in the end they were able to squeeze into the eight-team field.

“We were in charge of our own destiny going in, and the losses took it out of our hands,” said head coach Ruth Kmak, who guided the Maroons to three NCAA berths. “We didn’t know what would happen, but knowing we were strong in quality wins and in games against regionally-ranked teams helped us. That’s how we got in.”

History, momentum, and records will all be thrown out the window when the double elimination tourney kicks off Friday afternoon. It’s a mixed blessing of sorts for Chicago, a team that had more than its share of ups and downs this season.

With an 11–2 start, the Maroons sent a message to the competition right out of the gate on their spring break swing through Florida. When the team was on its game, its combination of steady defense, timely hitting and lights-out pitching from third-year righty Petra Wade (18–7, 1.22) simply overwhelmed opponents.

“The defense has come on strong. [Third-year] Nancy Bugajski has been ridiculous in center field. She covers a lot of ground,” Kmak said. “Overall we’ve had solid defense, and it was a weakness going into the season. Petra’s been a huge key all year.”

Their bats cooled off with the climate after the squad returned to the great Midwest. The team’s annual misfortune at the Illinois Wesleyan Invite April 8–9 set off a cavalcade of heartbreaking losses in winnable games. The squad earned splits with Lawrence (17–16), UW–Oshkosh (27–17), and Lake Forest (24–13), but scored a total of two runs in the three defeats.

Led by second-year catcher Vanessa Pineros (.352, .408 slugging), fourth-year third-baseman Kayti Fuhr (.320, .400), and second-year left fielder Dominique Marshall (.292, 2 home runs, 11 RBI), the Maroons featured a balanced lineup capable of producing numerous scoring opportunities. The problem throughout April was converting those chances into runs.

“When we had those back-to-back-to-back-to-back splits of games we should have swept, that was a low point. To not get the job done against teams that we should have beaten, you know you can do better.”

The club rebounded with convincing sweeps of Hope (30–12) and fifth-ranked Aurora (36–9), renewing the Maroons’ confidence that they could beat anyone when playing well. That ego boost will come in handy this weekend. Chicago has played and beaten three of the teams in the field already this season. In addition to the 2–0, 3–0 whitewash of seventh-seeded Hope, a possible second-round matchup, the Maroons have previously handled fourth-seeded Aurora 10–0, 6–2 and split with the eighth-seeded Foresters 0–1, 4–1.

“Sweeping Hope and Aurora really helped. The confidence we gained was great, knowing we could sweep two teams of that caliber,” Kmak said.

The road ahead will be a rough one for the Maroons, but it is a challenge that the team is ready and willing to meet. Standing in the way of postseason glory are the two titans of the bracket, first-seeded UW–Eau Claire (34–4) and second-seeded Augustana (33–8). For a squad that has already taken Midwest third-ranked Wash U (35–5) to the wire twice, the Maroons are long past suffering from nerves and intimidation. With a consolation bracket, present perfection is not a requirement, and all it takes is a four-game hot streak for a team to win the region and advance to the final rounds in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“The slate’s clean, everything starts over now,” Kmak said. “We’re taking it one game at a time. Anything can happen. Our foot is in the door, we just gotta go through it. We’ve beaten a couple teams and a couple of the team that we’ve beaten have beaten some teams, so we’re confident.”