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Softball Team Makes Improbable Run to the NCAA Tournament

The KSC softball team
The KSC softball team

This season, the Keene State College softball team appropriately wore T-shirts emblazoned with several motivational expressions, including a line which simply read: “In spite of.”

No one can argue that the Owls didn’t live up to that phrase this year. In spite of the bad weather, in spite of the numerous changes to the schedule, and especially in spite of being the fifth seed in the Little East Conference tournament, the Keene State softball team somehow found a way to persevere and overcome the obstacles to capture the LEC title and automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

The 19-17 Owls will enter the NCAA tournament with the worst record in the 62-team field. You might get a better seed and not be sent out of the region, but you don’t get style points for making it to the championship, and Keene State managed to get hot at the right time and sweep all four of its games against a tough Little East Conference tournament field.

Instead of throwing softballs, Keene State could’ve easily thrown in the towel at the start of the season. Returning to Keene after their spring week trip to Florida, the Owls were forced indoors due to the cold weather and snow that blanketed their field. “Coming back from the nice weather in Florida and going indoors again, we didn’t get much outdoor practice time,” said Sara Bracken, a junior from Windham. “I think we can all agree that didn’t help us much.”

Then there was the schedule – or should we say, what schedule? The bad weather and poor field conditions at the start of the season forced Keene State to cancel or reschedule 14 games, requiring the Owls to play nine games in the final week of the regular season.

To make matters worse, star sophomore pitcher Mariah Crisp of Greenland, the LEC’s reigning pitcher and rookie of the year, was still getting up to speed after sustaining an injury following her phenomenal freshman season. “I definitely didn’t feel as strong as I did last year,” she said. “When I came back to New Hampshire following our trip to Florida, I went through a little slump and got down on myself, but then I just picked myself back up and came out strong for the end of the season when it counted.”

It’s not the first time Keene State has defied the odds to win the Little East Championships. The Owls, who have now won five conference crowns and their first since 2005, captured the 2000 title as the fourth seed; in 2003, as the fifth seed, they came charging back from the losers’ bracket to claim the championship.

While that might‘ve been ancient history for most of the KSC players, one freshman, Aliza Guerrero of Fairfield, Connecticut, remembers a similar situation. “My Fairfield Ludlowe High School team was the eighth seed in our conference tournament my sophomore year, and we reached the finals,” said Guerrero. “So I felt we were going to be able to pull through.”

Guerrero’s confidence was contagious. Relishing the role of the underdog, the Owls headed to the LEC tournament in Madison, Connecticut, with something to prove. “We knew because of our record teams weren’t going to take us seriously,” said Heather Pelletier, a sophomore from Auburn. “But we wanted to prove everyone wrong and show them how good we really were.”

Preaching to his players, Keene State Coach Charlie Beach emphasized the need to take one game at a time. “Honestly, we came in with the attitude, one swing, once catch, one throw at a time,” said Beach.

First up to bat was second-seed Plymouth State University, a team that had dispatched the Owls in a doubleheader the previous week. Bracken, who batted .400 in the tournament, hit a three-run home run and knocked in the game-winning run in the seventh inning; Crisp fanned 15 batters as the Owls opened the tournament with a 5-4 win over the Panthers. “As soon as we beat Plymouth we said, OK, I think we can do this. It lifted our confidence a lot,” said sophomore Stephanie Long, the team’s lead-off hitter, from Salem.

The tournament, which featured numerous upsets, had top-seed Eastern Connecticut and second-seed Plymouth State facing each other in an elimination game at the conclusion of the first day. “I’ve never seen that before,” said Beach, the Owls’ 29-year coach who has been around the bases a few times.

The following day, Crisp tossed two complete games, striking out a total of 16 batters to lead Keene State College to a 3-2 win over third-seed Western Connecticut State and a 5-2 win over sixth-seed Rhode Island College.

Refusing to wilt under the pressure, Crisp shined in the softball spotlight. “I didn’t expect to pitch every game, but I definitely enjoyed the challenge and wanted to prove to everyone on my team I could handle it, “ said Crisp, who was named the tournament’s outstanding player after posting a 2.00 ERA with 43 strikeouts in her 28 innings in the circle. “I was pretty confident that if I didn’t strike out the next batter, my team would make the plays behind me.”

Mowing down the sides one right after another, Crisp didn’t leave much work for her fielders. “It’s awesome playing behind her,” said Long, the Owls’ centerfielder. “We get pumped up when she makes a big strikeout. Honestly, it gets boring because no one hits fly balls, but I don’t mind.”

Crisp and the Owls completed their improbable run in the tournament by defeating Rhode Island College 4-1 in the championship round.

Where does this tournament turnaround rank in Beach’s long and impressive career? “As far as being an underdog it’s got to be No. 1,” he said. “But all the championships make me smile.”

Beach said it was a team victory with all 18 players making a contribution. Sitting on the grass and speaking to his players and their parents following the game, Beach asked if anyone wanted to make a comment. Sophomore Cat Tewell from Rochester stepped forward. “I don’t play very much so I can’t contribute on the field, but I just want to say this is the most marvelous experience I ever had in my life,” she told the crowd.

The obstacles are far from over for the Owls as they get set to travel down to Union, New Jersey, to play a strong Lebanon Valley (32-4) team at the Kean University Regional on Friday.

The Owl players hope to get in some practice time while taking finals and then get ready for the long trip to New Jersey. But Beach and the Owls know there are no excuses. In spite of…

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