2015 Fordham Softball – Week 4 / Familiar Feelings and Anything But

Thursday, February 5, 2015 – Kajikawa Classic / Tempe, Arizona

Familiarity. It’s what gives one ease about the unknowns that are to come. Familiar faces, experiences, routines, and feelings. All combined, they create an ineffable sense of security in a life, and a sport like softball, that is full of uncertainties.

A sea of clean, white sneakers on the bus to JFK airport, en route to our first tournament of 2015 in Arizona.

A sea of clean, white sneakers on the bus to JFK airport, en route to our first tournament of 2015 in Arizona.

The familiarity of this past day spent sorting through freshly cleaned laundry, packing duffle bags, double-checking lists while boarding a bus en route to JFK airport; Paige in the seat to my right, Michele in front, Serena across the aisle from her. All so familiar. Words about these seating arrangements haven’t been spoken since our first bus ride together three years ago. They are just known to us like the uniforms we wear in games and the cheers we sing from dugouts.

With buds in my ears and a glowing computer screen staring back at me while I am suspended in midair, this night spent on a crowded airplane is also familiar. So familiar, in fact, that in some ways it feels like the season isn’t beginning because it never even stopped. Like we never will stop. Like this is what we have done each week in the past and will continue to do in weeks to come.

In the midst of all this familiarity, however, are feelings I’ve never experienced before. The feeling of knowing that this is the last time for white travel shoes and the claiming of bus seats and the anticipation of the 60 games that are to come. The feeling of knowing that we have the opportunity to leave an unparalleled legacy at Fordham with our third-consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference championship and trip to the NCAA Tournament. The feeling of knowing that I’m more prepared for this season than any of the previous 15 I have endured. These feelings are new, uncomfortable even, but more than anything, exciting.

I promised my dad during winter break that I wouldn’t write this year to foster my nostalgia and cryptic musings about the end of my softball career, but simply to create something long-lasting and document the amazing journey that is to come, regardless of what happens between this first week of February and the end of May.

Serena, Michele, and me at the airport before the start of our last season together.

Serena, Michele, and me at the airport before the start of our last season together.

I’m going to abide by my word, and I’m not going to make this a farewell tour or a weekly requiem for the end of my playing days, but rather a digital scrapbook of words, videos, and pictures to celebrate the journey I’m blessed to experience and the great game I’m fortunate to play.

While I’ll certainly find solace in the familiars I encounter in my fourth and final college softball season, I’m most excited for the unfamiliars that are surely ahead in the upcoming months. And even more than last season, I want to capture and make sense of it all so that none of my now-familiars become fleeting in the future.

As I learned last year, I know that all journeys have their peaks and valleys. I don’t expect this one to be the exception. What I also know, however, is that we are on the verge of doing something extremely special this year. Call me cliché, but I can just feel it.

We have a long way to go before our destiny is discovered, so right now, my sites are solely set on the five games on tap for this weekend at Arizona State. I can’t wait for the feeling of new cleats on top of freshly raked dirt. For old uniforms that feel new again. For unfamiliar surroundings with familiar people. For our softball family to be together again. For our hard work to be put to the test. For the start of the journey we’ve been preparing for since last May. I’m ready for the familiar and unfamiliar to collide this season and enable me to write the final chapter of a story that has been 15 years in the making. I’m ready to make this the best one yet.

Father-Daughter Bond Ignites Winning Ways at Fordham

Bob Baxter posing with his daughter Bridget Orchard following Fordham's 2014 Atlantic 10 championship. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Bob Baxter posing with his daughter Bridget Orchard and Fordham’s 2014 Atlantic 10 championship trophy. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

For the past ten years, Bob Baxter has been a staple in the Fordham softball dugout and a constant on the summer recruiting trail. Baxter, who is always boasting a smile, a Fordham hat, and one of his colossal championship rings, announced his retirement from coaching after ten seasons as an assistant in the Bronx.

The 66-year-old Baxter, who coached softball, track, and football over a span of 40 years, retired from his job as a high school principal in 2004 and began coaching the Fordham softball team with his daughter, Bridget Orchard, the following season. Since then, Baxter has helped Fordham emerge as one of the best Division I softball programs on the east coast. His keen eye for talent and ability to make people feel appreciated are often responsible for luring top recruits to Rose Hill.

Since 2005, the father-daughter coaching tandem compiled a 379-209 record and never once endured a losing season together. The current state of Fordham’s program is a far cry from the dismal campaigns preceding the duo’s arrival, during which Fordham softball never once produced a winning record. Ten seasons, three conference championships, and four NCAA tournament appearances later, Baxter says the best part of his Fordham coaching experience has been the time spent with his daughter.

“The most rewarding thing is the relationship we have built,” Baxter said. “We have a great time and trust each other. It’s been a real bonding experience.”

Bob Baxter (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Bob Baxter. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

For Orchard, Fordham’s head coach and a former softball standout at Villanova, the feeling is mutual. She looks back on the time softball has afforded her to spend with her father as being invaluable.

“For me, it’s been special because most people don’t get the opportunity to be around their Dad every day doing something you both love to do,” Orchard stated. “It’s not like a job for us. It’s fun to come and do this stuff. It’s a passion we both share.”

The passion that Orchard and Baxter share for softball and competing at a high level was ignited before Bridget even began playing the game in 1984. Orchard credits Baxter for instilling a competitive edge in her that has helped set her apart as both a softball player and coach.

“He was a track coach when I was growing up, so he would set up track meets and other competitive events in our house for my brother and me,” Orchard recalled. “Everything was a game, and the goal was always to beat my brother and win.”

Baxter has also helped Orchard find a balance between maintaining fierce competitiveness on the field and a familial atmosphere off of it. The pair has exemplified how a family environment can be a crucial ingredient in a team’s recipe for success.

Baxter greeting Fordham athletic director Dave Roach following Fordham's title-clinching victory. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Baxter greeting Fordham athletic director Dave Roach following Fordham’s title-clinching victory. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

“He has taught me how to make this program into a family atmosphere and that the stuff off the field is just as much a part of the coaching experience,” Orchard said. “The wins and losses are the fun and exciting things because they are the result of what you put in, but he has taught me that it is more about the experience and building relationships with people.”

What Baxter says he will miss most about coaching are not the big wins and gaudy championship rings they produce, but rather the subtleties of the game and experiences that are often overlooked.

“I’ll miss watching the games, cheering for the girls, and seeing people develop and pull through slumps and personal problems,” Baxter said. “But mostly, I’ll miss getting to spend so much time with Bridget.”

For the man behind Fordham softball’s success, there has been no greater victory.

The Roller Coaster Ride of a Lifetime

Monday, May 19, 2014 – NCAA Tournament / Tallahassee, FL

Our last team picture as the 2014 Fordham Rams.

The 2014 Fordham Rams, for the last time.

The song seemed appropriate. OneRepublic’s “Good Life” filled the speakers at Florida State’s JoAnne Graf Field as we convened for one last team picture. We had just ended our season with a heartbreaking 5-4 loss to South Carolina in the NCAA Regionals. The loss was a bitter pill to swallow, but OneRepublic’s lyrics eased the immediate pain and provided an amazingly fitting ending to our final moments in uniform together:

Hopelessly, I feel like there might be something that I’ll miss.

Hopelessly, I feel like the window closes oh so quick.

Hopelessly, I’m taking a mental picture of you now.

‘Cause hopelessly, the hope is we have so much to feel good about.”

That last line was particularly pertinent for the moment. After capturing our second straight Atlantic 10 Championship and finishing with a 36-20 record, as well as all of the other individual and collective accomplishments we garnered throughout the season, we do, in fact, have so much to feel good about.

Michele Smith and me chatting after our first game at Regionals against Florida State.

ESPN commentator and Olympic gold medalist Michele Smith chatting with me after our first game at Regionals against Florida State.

For fifteen weeks, I have documented many of the highs and lows of the 2014 Fordham Softball season. During this fifteen-week process, I have learned more about myself, my teammates, and the nature of this amazing sport than in any other season in my fifteen-year softball career. In these fifteen short weeks, our myriad successes and failures comprised the story that will be forever etched in both the history of our program and the history of our lives.

As a particularly sentimental person, now is the time when my nostalgia is at an all-time high. Just as I will miss our four seniors (Tina, Bri, Gabby, and Elise) and the tremendous journey we experienced together, I will also miss writing this blog. While capturing the so-called “chapters in-between” (the moments that shape the journey, but often go unnoticed and unappreciated), this blog has provided me with an outlet to experience clarity and understanding during some of the toughest times this season, as well as a way to truly appreciate the moments of greatness and joy.

After getting eliminated on Saturday night by South Carolina, I talked with Sydney, my roommate during Regionals, in our hotel room before falling asleep. We reminisced and recapped various moments from our season and compared it to a roller coaster ride; not in the traditional sense, however, in which roller coasters are often used as metaphors with negative connotations.

My Dad and me at Regionals. He made the trip down to Tallahassee to support his Rams.

My Dad and me at Regionals. He made the trip down to Tallahassee to support his Rams.

We determined that our 2014 softball season was the roller coaster ride of a lifetime. Sure, there were moments of anxiety and doubt while we were ascending up the tracks, along with moments of fear after the initial drop-off, during which we felt like we might fall out or become sick. But, after we got some momentum and stopped white-knuckling the safety bar in front of us, the rest of the ride was thrilling, and even joyous. Ultimately, this roller coaster ride left the people who had experienced it wanting to hop back on line and ride it again.

For thrill-seekers, like me, there is nothing more enjoyable than a good roller coaster ride.

As I say goodbye to yet another season in my softball career and begin preparing for my final go-around next year, I find solace in the words of Ernest Hemingway:

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

And what a journey it was. Thanks to everyone who came along for the ride!

Glorious Triumphs and Worthwhile Experiences

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 – Atlantic 10 Tournament / Bronx, NY (A10 TOURNAMENT CHAMPS)

Rams posing with the trophy after the big win.

Rams posing with the trophy after the big win. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

I took the time to look around and take it all in. In the 5th inning, with the score 11-0 and a trip to the NCAA Tournament just three outs away, I gave myself the chance to truly enjoy what was happening at that very moment.

It wasn’t exactly what I had imagined it would be, but then again, most things usually aren’t. When a championship game is decided by the mercy-rule, the immediate thrill of victory isn’t nearly as electrifying. After letting it sink in for a few days, however, I’m glad there was never any doubt that we were going to win that final game against St. Louis because it allowed me to step outside of myself for the last three outs, and live in that moment I had been dreaming about all year.

So much of my writing over the course of this season has been about seizing the moment, enjoying the journey, and even appreciating the seemingly difficult things along the way. In a matter of three outs, probably equaling about five to seven minutes, I was able to do each of those things.

Talk about things coming full circle.

Perfect symmetry, as Lauren and Amy celebrate (left), while Elise and I do the same (right).

Perfect symmetry: Lauren and Amy celebrate (left), while Elise and I do the same (right). (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

I thought about the grueling 6am conditioning workouts in our outfield in September, as well as the time spent practicing and earning the right to be standing on the field at that very moment.

I flashed back to some of the hardest times during the season, too; I looked at Elise next to me at shortstop and remembered how, two months ago after a painful loss to Central Michigan in Florida, she had said that it wasn’t too late to turn our season around, and that we could go on a run and eventually be laughing about all the struggles we had endured.

I looked around and took in the beautiful surroundings of Bahoshy Field, which had not been that packed since Alabama came to play us in 2012. With the banners hanging high along the fence and the home crowd buzzing for the championship they knew to be inevitable, I felt a sense of pride.

When the final out was ultimately recorded (a line drive right back to Michele at the mound), I ran and jumped into Elise’s arms for the second consecutive year; a childlike celebration reflecting the pure and unadulterated joy of the moment.

Rams mob Sydney after leading off the championship game with a home run.

Rams mob Sydney after leading off the championship game with a home run. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

After the game, a few of my friends were commenting about how I had a huge smile plastered across my face during the entirety of the last inning. I couldn’t help but smile, both outwardly and inwardly. We had done it. We had accomplished our biggest goal of repeating as Atlantic 10 Champions, and had done so on our home field. We had overcome struggles from the beginning of the journey that had caused us to question our team’s identity and make a conscious choice to alter the trajectory of our season. We had risen to the occasion and played our best softball when it mattered most, as we swept through the three games we played in the Atlantic 10 tournament without leaving a doubt in anyone’s mind that we were the best team in the conference.

Although the championship game may have reflected an easy path to victory, with the score being lopsided and the mercy-rule coming into effect, the irony of the situation is that the road to the championship was anything but easy for us. As a team, we had to endure some of the lowest of lows throughout the season; from being humbled for the first time in Charleston, to going 0-5 in California, to the disaster that was the Bradley game, to team and personal conflicts throughout the journey, and most recently, to the embarrassment of being swept by Dayton, our journey to the top of the mountain had several pitfalls along the way.

Me and the trophy, a moment I had been waiting for all season.

A moment I had been waiting for all season. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

But, as Thomas Paine said, “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

To me, the value of our 2014 Atlantic 10 Conference Championship is greater than any trophy or banner could ever symbolize; it rests in the memories I will always cherish and the people I experienced the journey with.

As we continue our season at Florida State University in the NCAA Regionals this upcoming weekend, I plan to continue seizing the moment, enjoying the journey, and even appreciating the seemingly difficult things along the way. After all, that’s what makes the triumphs glorious and the experiences worthwhile.

Lifting the Anchor for the Final Leg of the Journey

Monday, May 5, 2014 – University of Dayton / Dayton, OH

Team picture at the annual Block F student-athlete banquet before we left for the Dayton series.

Team picture at the annual Block F student-athlete banquet before we left for the Dayton series. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

For the first time in four weeks, we Rams lost a softball game. Two games, in fact. One 5am departure from campus and a connecting flight later, we arrived in Dayton, Ohio on Friday to play our final series of the regular season. Dayton had everything to play for; not only was it their senior day, but it was also their last opportunity to make the Atlantic 10 tournament. They were a bubble team who needed to at least split with us in order to book their trip to the Bronx. We, on the other hand, were playing simply for pride, as we had already wrapped up the number one seed in the tournament with our sweep of La Salle the weekend before.

From the early goings of game one on Saturday against Dayton, we knew we were in for a dogfight. They hopped out to an early 1-0 lead in the first inning before going up 5-1 on us by the third. Each inning thereafter, we chipped away at their lead. Elise finally tied the score at five with a two-run bomb in the sixth inning.

Heading to the eighth, with the score still tied at five, we erupted for four runs and a collective feeling that we had sealed the win. Dayton had other feelings, however, as they answered right back with four runs of their own, forcing the game to continue. Their unthinkable comeback took the wind right out of our sails, as it took everything we had to battle back and finally take the lead, before the ultimate feeling of deflation took effect. Dayton eventually walked off on us in the tenth inning to cap a crazy three-hour game.

The second game, which occurred just 20 minutes after our disappointing loss in game one, was a complete blur for nearly everyone on our sideline. Upon discussion later that night at the airport, we came to the conclusion that we lost the second game in the eighth inning of the first when we relinquished our four-run lead. Our 15-game winning streak had ended, and we were forced to swallow the bitter pill of defeat for the first time in four weeks; a taste we had nearly forgotten.

Me with Michele, our stud pitcher and one of my very best friends, at the Block F banquet. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Me with Michele, our stud pitcher and one of my very best friends, at the Block F banquet.

With the loss also came the end of my own personal ribbon-wearing streak. Since our game at Lehigh at the beginning of April, in which we came from behind and won in the final inning, I have been wearing the same red ribbon with blue anchors in my hair for each game we have played. One of our super freshmen and center fielder Sydney gave our team the ribbon to wear that day. Her message behind giving us the anchor ribbon was to use its symbol of hope as a reminder to keep the focus on our goals and prevent us from drifting. She also used it as a metaphor for what it means to be a teammate. The anchor represents the stability and strength that we have in each other.

I loved that. So much, in fact, that I vowed to wear the ribbon until we lost again.

As we set off on our final voyage of the season, we are ready to lift the anchor and embark on what will certainly be our most trying journey yet. Along with the anchor, our hopes are also rising with the possibilities that this upcoming week will bring. It is championship week; the time we have been preparing for since August. Our shortcomings at Dayton, along with the myriad other experiences of our season, will serve as preparation for the rough waters ahead of us in the A10 tournament and hopefully beyond.

The lifting of the anchor has us steadfast in our pursuit of the destination: an Atlantic 10 championship. We are hopeful and excited for what is ahead, and ready to embark on our final journey with an unparalleled zeal and determination. Our ship is built on the stability and strength we have in each other, and I am confident that there is not a stronger or better-prepared ship than ours in the A10 to take on the upcoming storms on the sea.

Accomplish Goals, Sharpen the Focus

Sunday, April 27, 2014 – La Salle University / Philadelphia, PA (A10 REGULAR SEASON CHAMPS)

Before the start of every season, it is a Fordham Softball tradition to write down each goal we have collectively and individually. We girls sit in a circle with our coaches at the helm, and spend roughly an hour discussing our expectations and hopes, both small and lofty, for the upcoming months of the season. This year, one of our many collective goals, as it is every season, was to win both the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament championships. Despite the fact that we won the tournament last year, we did not win the regular season, finishing second behind St. Joe’s.

We were able to cross this goal off of our list on Saturday, as we swept La Salle behind two dominating offensive performances to clinch the regular season title with one week still remaining in the regular season. No matter what happens when we play Dayton next weekend, we will possess the number one seed and receive a first round bye for the A10 tournament at our home field in the Bronx in ten days.

The team posing with our “championship cheese steaks.” Our coaches took us out for Philly cheese steaks after sweeping LaSalle to clinch the Atlantic 10 regular season title.

Despite the distinct honor we are afforded as the regular season Atlantic 10 champions, rings are not won in the regular season. It is of the utmost importance for us to acknowledge this now.

My Dad frequently tells me that one of the most important factors for success in softball is to always have a sharpened focus, with the immediate tasks (hitting, fielding, etc.) at the forefront of your thoughts, and the ultimate goals (wins, championships) in the back of your mind. Being able to maintain this focus, which has propelled us to our current 15-game winning streak, will be the key for our success in the upcoming A10 tournament.

While it is great to see us accomplish our team goals, it is also fun to watch each other accomplish individual goals. For instance, my best friend and teammate Elise has emerged as the best player in the Atlantic 10 this season (if not the best player in the entire northeast region). On Saturday, she set the Fordham Softball single-season RBI record with 64, after launching a three-run bomb against LaSalle. She then went on to hit another home run (a grand slam), in the same game, which increased her RBI total to 68. I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the modern day Mantle-Maris home run chase that is now taking place at Rose Hill, as both Elise and our catcher Gabby are pursuing the all-time Fordham Softball career home run record. The record is 45 and they have 42 and 41, respectively. This is really fun stuff to witness, folks.

Winning the regular season is just the first accomplishment of several goals we have for the end of our season. These next ten days before the Atlantic 10 tournament are perhaps the most crucial of all the days this season, as we will need to work towards sharpening our focus in preparation for our toughest battles ahead. We are on the cusp of greatness; I can almost taste it.

A Bittersweet Softball Symphony

Monday, April 21, 2014 – St. Louis University & University of Massachusetts / Bronx, NY

The team after the senior day ceremony.

The team poses after the senior day ceremony. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Amid the 60-game schedule, the practices and workouts, the seemingly endless travel, and everything else that comes with being a Division 1 athlete, I sometimes forget that life won’t always be the way that it is right now, and mostly, that it won’t be forever spent with my teammates. This was poignantly brought to my attention during our senior day ceremony on Saturday. When our seniors (Elise, Gabby, Tina, and Bri) were honored on Bahoshy Field between games of our doubleheader against UMass, I got significantly more emotional than I anticipated getting. I have never been one to handle endings very well, and it certainly showed on Saturday. I cried for the loss of four people who have been staples in my life as a Fordham Softball player, for the end of their almost lifelong softball careers, and at the realization that my time is also nearing, as I and my five other softball classmates are next in line to take the emotional walk across Bahoshy Field on senior day.

Saturday was bittersweet. For all the sadness it brought me, it also reminded me about just how amazing it is that we not only get to travel the country and represent our university while playing the game we love at the highest level, but we are also afforded the opportunity to form incredible relationships with people along the way. People who were strangers to me just a few years ago have become, and will remain, some of the best friends I have ever had in my life. No matter where our lives take us long after the last out is made in our softball careers, we will forever be bonded by Fordham Softball. This, I believe, is the most beautiful thing about college sports.

The second most beautiful thing about college sports, I believe, is when a team is in sync and firing on all cylinders. That, I know from experience, is a thing of beauty to witness and be part of.

Elise and me during an emotional senior day ceremony.

Elise and me during an emotional senior day ceremony. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

We are in that place right now. Things continued to click for us this past week, as we extended our winning streak to 11 games, and 17 wins in 18 tries. After playing #24 LSU to a 3-3 tie on Tuesday before the game was called due to rain in the fourth inning, we rolled to sweeps of both St. Louis and UMass, two formidable Atlantic 10 opponents. Once again, we displayed resilience and fight, as we came from behind in both series and demonstrated some late-inning heroics to secure our spot atop the conference for yet another week.

As we enter the final stretch of our season, with just six regular season games remaining, we are focused on our collective mission to win another championship and get back to the promised land of the NCAA tournament. Although senior day served as a sad reminder that very few things are permanent in college athletics, it helped me realize that the most important things last forever: the friendships and championships. With the friendships firmly established and in place, I hope more than anything that we can send our seniors out with a championship that will both solidify their legacies, and make the end of their softball careers less bitter and more sweet.