Softball Set To Defend Title

May 3, 2012

The NESCAC Softball Championship heads to Amherst College for the first time in tournament history this weekend, as the Lord Jeffs, the number-one seed from the West Division, will clash with defending champ Middlebury, six-time title-winner Tufts, and Bowdoin for the 2012 conference crown.

Action gets underway in Amherst, Mass. on Friday afternoon when the Jeffs clash with the Polar Bears at 2:30 p.m., and will be followed at 5:00 p.m. with the Panthers taking on the Jumbos. The 2012 NESCAC Softball Championship continues on Saturday, May 5, and concludes on Sunday, May 6. Live stats along with a video webcast of all games will be available courtesy of Amherst athletics.

The battle for hosting duties came down to the final weekend of the regular season between West Division foes Amherst and Middlebury. The Lord Jeffs started the conference slate strong with a sweep of rival Williams, then built momentum with three-game victories over Hamilton and Wesleyan that guaranteed them a postseason berth for the first time since 2006. The Panthers, meanwhile, opened their title defense with sweeps of the Continentals and the Cardinals before taking 2-of-3 from the Ephs on April 20-21 to earn the other playoff spot from the division and set up a winner-take-all series at Amherst for the top seed and hosting duties. Middlebury struck first with a 5-3 victory on April 27 and needed just one more win to lock up hosting duties for the first time. Needing to take two from the Panthers on April 28, the Lord Jeffs came through in the clutch, starting the day with a shutout, 4-0, then coming away an 8-1 victor for the top spot in the division.

Back East, Tufts left little doubt as the season progressed where it would end up in the standings, as the Jumbos swept all four series and finished with a perfect conference mark for the first time since 2009 - the last time they won the NESCAC crown. There were a few close calls along the way, notably a 4-3, 11-inning win at Colby on April 14 and a 2-0 victory at Bates on April 20, however the Jumbos seemed to always find a way to come out on top. While Tufts rolled to the top spot in the division for the eighth year in a row, the second seed from the East was on the line during the Bates-Bowdoin series to close out the regular season. The Polar Bears had the advantage heading into the three-game set, needing just one win to return to the playoffs for the second time in three years, however the Bobcats picked up a surprise 4-2 victory in Brunswick to start the series on April 28. Bowdoin shut the door on Bates the next afternoon with a 12-4, 6-inning win to start the day, then wrapped things up with a 10-0, 5-inning decision to close out the series.

The 2012 campaign has been one for the record books for Amherst (33-2, 11-1 NESCAC West). The Lord Jeffs opened the year on a tear, going 12-0 during their annual spring break trip down south, then returned to Massachusetts and tacked on 10 more victories to up their winning streak to a program-record 22. The Jeffs' 33 wins are a single-season best for the team, shattering the record of 31 set over a decade ago, and at least one more win during the NESCAC championship will not only add to their remarkable tally but also will be their first in the conference tournament, as Amherst is 0-6 over three previous appearances. A talented mix of veterans and rookies are hoping to bring Amherst its first NESCAC crown this weekend. In the circle, junior Theresa Kelley (Los Angeles, Calif.) and sophomore Arielle Doering (Branchburg, N.J.) have elevated the Jeffs' pitching staff to the top of the league in terms of ERA (1.66) and opponent average (.197). Kelley is 18-1 over 25 appearances with a 1.12 ERA and a .179 opponent average, while Doering owns a 10-1 mark in 21 appearances, holding batters to a .203 average. At the plate, rookie outfielder Donna Leet (Seattle, Wash.) has had a stellar first season at Amherst, breaking the program's single-season hits and RBI record with 54 and 40, respectively. Leet paces her squad with a .446 average and a .492 on-base mark.

No team in tournament history has more conference crowns than Tufts (33-5, 12-0 NESCAC East). The Jumbos won the first three NESCAC championships from 2001-03 before taking home another three titles over a three-year stretch from 2009. The only team to qualify for the tournament every year it has been held, Tufts will have its thoughts set on a seventh championship trophy this weekend after coming up short to Middlebury for the 2011 title. Like their top-seeded counterparts from the West Division, the Jumbos have enjoyed a remarkable season that has many similarities to their record-breaking campaign of 2009. During that year, Tufts went 12-0 in the division, won the NESCAC title and the NCAA regional before finishing ending the year with a program-best mark of 44-3. A big part of the Jumbos' success this spring has been due to the incredible play of first year hurler Allyson Fournier (South Windsor, Conn.). A strong candidate for the league's top rookie and pitching honors, Fournier has dominated opponents, owning a 15-1 record with a 0.53 ERA and a .117 opponents average. Fournier has struck out 185 batters (1.75 K/IP) while surrendering just 21 walks for an impressive 8.81 K/BB ratio. Senior Jo Clair (Glastonbury, Conn.) has been leading her squad in the batter's box with a career-best .470 batting average along with a .550 on-base percentage. She heads into the weekend atop the league in home runs (12) and tied for the top spot in RBIs (47).

After winning its first NESCAC championship last year, Middlebury (20-14, 9-3 NESCAC West) is back in search of another title. The spring of 2011 went down in history as the best for the Panthers. Earning a tournament bid for the first time in six years, Middlebury went to Tufts and proceeded to go 3-0 en route to the NESCAC title and the program's first-ever NCAA appearance. While the season may have ended a little sooner than they would have liked after falling in the NCAA regional, the Panthers' 30 victories were the most in team history. The wins have been a bit tougher to come by this season for Middlebury, yet the Panthers still managed to qualify for the championship with ease. How Middlebury and Amherst fare against East foes Tufts and Bowdoin will be interesting, as none of the teams in the tournament have faced their opposite division opponents this year. Hoping to put the Panthers in line for a second league title will be sophomore LHP Elizabeth Morris (Kenilworth, Ill.). Morris (7-2), one of three regulars in the circle for Middlebury, has recorded a team-best 1.14 ERA, 67 strikeouts to just six walks, and held opposing batters to a .179 average. Junior Jessica Poracky (Ramsey, N.J.) has been consistent at the dish for the Panthers, boasting a team-best .463 average with a .518 on-base percentage while driving in 42 runs.

Back in the tournament for the second time in three years is Bowdoin (28-12, 8-4 NESCAC). During the 2010 NESCAC Softball Championship, the Polar Bears came within one game of winning their first NESCAC title. Bowdoin downed host Williams 8-1 on day one, then rebounded from a loss to Wesleyan on day two by winning twice on day three to force a decisive game seven before falling to the Cardinals. A sweep at the hands of Tufts wasn't the way the Polar Bears wanted to start the league schedule this season, yet they managed to win eight of their final nine NESCAC contests to lock up the last spot in the playoffs. Statistically, Bowdoin sits in the middle of the conference pack with a team batting average of .333 (4th) and an ERA of 3.16 (5th). Junior OF Gen Barlow (Norwich, Conn.) has enjoyed her best season with the Polar Bears, batting a career-best .425 with 13 doubles, seven home runs, and 47 RBIs that put her in a tie with Tufts' Clair. Sophomore pitcher Melissa DellaTorre (Scarborough, Maine) has seen a majority of the work in the circle for her team, going 14-6 over 24 appearances with a 2.07 ERA, 125 strikeouts, and an opponents average of .209.

The top two teams from the East and West divisions earn the right to participate in the NESCAC Softball Championship. The host site rotates between divisions on a yearly basis, with the top team in the West Division earning the right to host the event this season. After Friday's pair of contests, Saturday's morning game will be the first elimination game of the tournament between the two first day losers, followed by a contest between the first day winners. The late afternoon contest on Saturday will be an elimination game between the two teams who split their first two tournament games. Sunday's championship will feature the survivor of the final game on Saturday and the remaining undefeated team in the tournament. A second game will immediately follow if the undefeated team falls in Sunday's championship game.

Day 1 - Friday, May 4 at Amherst
Game 1 - E2 Bowdoin at W1 Amherst - 2:30 p.m.
Game 2 - W2 Middlebury vs. E1 Tufts - 5:00 p.m.

Day 2 - Saturday, May 5 at Amherst
Game 3 - Loser of GM 1 vs. Loser of GM 2 - 10:00 a.m.
Game 4 - Winner of GM 1 vs. Winner of GM 2 - 12:30 p.m.
Game 5 - Winner of GM 3 vs. Loser of GM 4 - 3:00 p.m.

Day 3 - Sunday, May 6 at Amherst
Game 6 - Winner of GM 4 vs. Winner of GM 5 - 10:00 a.m.
Game 7 - If Necessary - Immediately Following

--courtesy NESCAC--