Coming off a team-record 21-15 season in 2007, one that featured a first-ever trip to the NESCAC tournament, Wesleyan’s softball team came into the 2008 campaign with realistic hopes of repeating last year’s success.
Our goal this season was to get better every day, said seventh-year head coach Jen Shea. We knew we had a lot of talent but we needed to see how it would come together.
Come together was just what the team did, equaling the team record for wins, three of those coming during the NESCAC Tournament, which the Cardinals hosted May 3-5. Those three victories put the squad into a showdown with Tufts for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament as the NESCAC champion.
Tufts held a tenuous 4-3 edge heading into the bottom of the 6th inning (Tufts played as the home team). The Jumbos erupted for a pair of three-run homers to put the game away, 10-3, and win their second straight crown. While it left Wesleyan one W shy of a remarkable year, it didnt detract from what has to be called an amazing season, considering the way it started.
Playing its opening 14 games in California, the Cardinal started 1-7 against local teams, then went 4-4 during the Sun West Tournament to return to New England sporting a 5-9 record. Highlights out west were a 9-6 victory over Tufts and a 4-1 loss to St. Thomas (MN). The Tommies, whom the Cardinals out-hit 8-6, finished their season 42-5 and were ranked in the top-10 nationally in Division III as an NCAA qualifier. Tufts was ranked 26th.
Not quite what the team was hoping from its western excursion, the Cardinals still used the experience as a positive.
That game against St. Thomas was the turning point for us, explained Coach Shea. Meaghan [Dendy 10, pictured at left] pitched a great game against them and to out-hit them was great. Then we won a close game vs. Puget Sound (4-3) and the Tufts win really helped give us our confidence back. Definitely in the back of our minds, the goal now was to win the NESCAC West because we wanted to host the tournament.
Back in New England, the goal became a reality as the Cardinals went 13-5 to end the regular season with an 18-14 record. Wesleyan took two of three games from both Amherst and Williams, and when Amherst took two of three from Williams, Wesleyan claimed its first-ever outright Little Three title. Sweeping three games from both Hamilton and Middlebury, the latter all on the same day, Wesleyan fashioned a 10-2 NESCAC West mark and secured the top seed. In even years, the West winner hosts the NESCAC tournament so Tufts, Williams and Trinity came to Middletown May 3-5 for the double-elimination tournament with a NCAA tournament bid awaiting the victor.
Wesleyan met NESCAC East runner-up Trinity in a first-round matchup. The teams had split a double-header a week earlier, Wesleyan winning 7-3 and Trinity, 6-5. The tournament game was all Trinity as the Bantams rolled to a 7-0 decision. That put Wesleyan into an elimination game vs. Williams, a 7-0 loser to Tufts.
The Cardinals subdued the Ephs, 13-3, led by Talia Bernstein 11 who went 3-for-4 with three RBI and a pair of runs scored. Next up was a rematch with the Bantams. Jo Brownson 08 paced the offense with a pair of two-run homers as Wesleyan prevailed, 8-2. On the mound, Karla Hargrave 08 defeated both Trinity and Williams, allowing 13 hits and five runs over her 14 innings of work. Ahead was 2-0 Tufts.
Wesleyan knew a loss would give Tufts the title. As the visitors, the Cardinals trailed 2-0 when they came to bat in the top of the 6th inning. With two runners on, Molly OConnell 09, pictured at left, launched her fifth home run of the year, tying a team record, to put Wesleyan up, 3-2. Pitcher Meaghan Dendy closed out the victory by getting the final six outs. She yielded just seven hits and two runs, only one of which was earned, in posting her second win over Tufts this season.
Now Wesleyan and Tufts would play again for the title and Tufts nailed down the championship.
Wesleyan placed four players on the all-NESCAC squads as Bernstein, Dendy and Marcia Whitehead 08, who set team marks for hits in a season (51 in 2008 as she led the team with a .398 average) and career (173), made the first team while Hargrave was a second-team choice. Dendy also was Pitcher of the Year. Coach Jen Shea shared NESCAC Coach of the Year honors with Cheryl Milligan of Tufts.
By seasons end, the 2008 Cardinals tied or broke six individual and five team records. In addition to Whiteheads hits marks and OConnells record-equaling home run figure, Hargrave tied the record for hits in a game with five vs. St. Marys (MN) while Bernstein set the record for doubles in a season (10) and tied the seasonal RBI standard (32). The 351 hits, 51 doubles and 14 home runs by the 2008 Cardinals are seasonal records. With 21 wins, the squad matched last years record output and the 237.1 innings thrown by pitchers Dendy, Hargrave and Anu Rimal 11 is a seasonal high.
Other starters Becca Feiden 08, who finished her career No. 2 on the all-time Wesleyan hits list with 137, Julia Chamberlin 09 and Katie Grogan 09 all returned from the 2007 team. Joining Bernstein as a key newcomer was Taylor Zavadsky 10, a top-notch catcher who filled a valuable spot in the Cardinals lineup after transferring from Haverford College.
The 2009 squad will have some serious holes to fill as Whitehead, Feiden, Hargrave and Brownson will don cap and gown shortly. But Wesleyan has turned the corner and will build its softball forces around Dendy, Bernstein, OConnell and Zavadsky next spring.