2015 Fordham Softball – Week 13 / Showing Up For Battle and Winning the Fight

Friday, April 10, 2015 – University of Massachusetts / Amherst, Massachusetts

Our 2014 A10 championship team got honored at Yankee Stadium  this week. A surreal experience for Yankees fans and non-fans alike. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Our 2014 A10 championship team got honored at Yankee Stadium this week. A surreal experience for Yankees fans and non-fans alike. (Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Last week, for the first time during softball season since I started this blog at the beginning of 2014, I failed to produce a written entry that either previewed or recapped what my teammates and I were experiencing along our season’s journey. My decision not to write last week wasn’t because I had too much homework or because I got preoccupied with other things in my life. Rather, it was because not even the words that I often look to for solace and escape could save me from what I was feeling following an Easter weekend that saw us drop two of our three games against Dayton in harrowing fashion. 

During what has been an up-and-down season, things looked as promising as they have all year for us before we took the field at Fordham last Saturday. Following a convincing two-game sweep over LaSalle the weekend before, and a solid victory over Dayton on Friday in the first game of our three-game series, none of us expected to drop back-to-back games and get outscored 13-1 on our home field on the day before Easter.

Going into the games on Saturday, we had expected to win and protect our house. But, from the time the umpire signaled for the first pitch to be thrown, we inexplicably looked and played like shells of ourselves. We played embarrassing softball on our home field that day, and fourteen innings later, the scores of both games certainly reflected the collective lull that we could not snap out of in the third base dugout at Bahoshy Field. 

Upon reflection, however, it is clear that our first mistake of that day was that, by and large, we came to the field expecting to simply show up and win. We fell into the trap of thinking things would be easy on Saturday just because we had played well on Friday and won our first game of the series handily. Nonetheless, we were quickly reminded by the Flyers that we need to do a whole lot more than just show up to win in this league.

Sometimes, I think we tend to forget that winning is no easy feat. We learned last weekend, though, that just because it has happened in the past, doesn’t mean that it is guaranteed to happen in the present or the future. Plus, as the two-time defending conference champions, everyone in the A10 circles our name on their calendars. And this year, not only is a proverbial target on our backs, but it is also the size of a billboard and has flashing lights on it. We have too often failed to remember this.

But, thanks to Dayton, we won’t forget it going forward. Throughout this past week since our Dayton series, it has been reiterated to us by our coaches that we absolutely have to come to the field ready for battle if we even have a chance at winning. Or else, any team in this league is capable of exploiting our complacency and taking it to us. Trust me, we’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

Now, as I sit in my hotel room awaiting the start of our series against UMass tomorrow, I find solace in the words that evaded me last weekend. I know that we have learned from our letup against Dayton, and now have a fresh understanding that a target exists on our backs. It’s up to us to earn the victories we desire and protect the championship that is ours because absolutely nothing will be given to us.

Starting this weekend, it’s time to not only show up for battle, but also to win the fight. 

 

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Plourde and Prezioso Represent Atlantic 10, Exemplify Mid-Major Potential at Next Level

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts).

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle. (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts)

Former Atlantic 10 softball standouts Sara Plourde and Sarah Prezioso find themselves in the minority of players in the professional and international ranks. Following their stellar careers at UMass and Temple, respectively, it is not their skills that set them apart from the world’s best softball players, but rather the pedigree from which they come. Within the professional and international softball scene, where names like Cat Osterman, Keilani Ricketts, and Natasha Watley headline the competition, it is quite uncommon to find players from mid-major conferences in the mix.

Plourde, a 2012 graduate of UMass, is currently wrapping up her second consecutive summer as a member of Team Canada’s pitching staff. The recently-hired UTEP pitching coach believes that many players in mid-major conferences are unfairly categorized as less-skilled than those at big name schools.

“I full-heartedly believe there are many athletes who are overlooked simply because they don’t play in top conferences,” the three-time All-American hurler said. “There are so many talented players in the mid-major conferences, and only a select group has been given the opportunity to play at the next level.”

Plourde was drafted in 2012 by the Carolina Diamonds (now the Pennsylvania Rebellion) of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league, following one of the best careers in Atlantic 10 softball history. She led the country in strikeouts each season from 2010-2012 and finished her collegiate career ranked eighth in total strikeouts in NCAA Division I softball history.

Along with Plourde, other recent Atlantic 10 graduates to play post-collegiate professional softball include Brandice Balschmiter (UMass, 2009), Jen Mineau (Fordham, 2012), Christina Sykora (Temple, 2012), Cyndil Matthew (UMass, 2013), and Sarah Prezioso (Temple, 2014).

Prezioso recently completed her rookie season in the NPF with the Pennsylvania Rebellion. The 2014 Temple graduate was a three-time All-Atlantic 10 honoree at shortstop, before playing her senior season in the AAC after Temple switched conferences.

Like Plourde, Prezioso also believes players from the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences don’t receive the respect they rightfully deserve from the softball community.

“Since the A10 isn’t considered a powerhouse conference, a lot of players, like me, have been overlooked,” said the first player in Temple softball history to collect 200 hits. “People think that [we] are only doing well because of the competition we play against.”

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts in July (Courtesy of Katie Roupe).

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts of the USSSA Pride in July. (Courtesy of Katie Roupe)

Prezioso thinks it is the exposure that players from “big time” schools get, and not their talent, which separates them from mid-major players.

“In the NPF there are all the big name players who everyone knows about because they are featured on television,” Prezioso said. “It is such a shame when you play the same level of Division 1 softball and can compete at a high-level in the NPF, but are thought of as a lesser player because of the school you went to and the conference you played in.”

At the center of the issue, Prezioso believes, is the difference in funding between major and mid-major programs.

“Because of how financially well-off some schools are, they have the money to give [scholarships] to high-caliber players and put into their facilities, uniforms, travel, and stadiums,” the former All-Region shortstop said. “Recruits look for these types of things when choosing their schools.”

Plourde firmly believes it will take more than just money and television exposure for the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences to take the next step and gain similar respect as the PAC-12, SEC, and Big 12.

“Winning against the teams with higher rankings and harder schedules is what mid-major conferences need in order to gain the same respect as the powerhouse conferences,” Plourde said. “To be one of the best, you have to play and beat some of the best.”

The 2012 Atlantic 10 Pitcher and Player of the Year speaks from personal experience, after leading UMass to three Top-40 finishes in her four collegiate seasons. Plourde recalls her UMass team from 2009 as an example of mid-major success amongst the nation’s best. That season, UMass took the eventual National Champion Washington Huskies to a third and decisive 15-inning game in the NCAA Regionals, and finished ranked 24th in the country.

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013 (Courtesy of Team Canada).

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013. (Courtesy of Team Canada)

“That year, we had fantastic leadership, passion, and chemistry, and although we didn’t win [Regionals], we still sent a message that people have not forgotten today,” Plourde stated. “With the right ingredients, a mid-major school can definitely send a large shock of fear or intimidation across the country.”

A prime example of consistent mid-major softball success is the Louisiana-Lafayette program. The Rajin Cajuns, out of the Sun Belt Conference, have played in six Women’s College World Series since 1993 and are perennially ranked in the Top 25. ULL’s feats demonstrate what a mid-major program can accomplish with a successful formula and winning mentality.

Plourde believes a winning mentality develops from heated rivalries and in-conference battles that prepare players for competition against big name schools. She credits her experiences at UMass against Atlantic 10-rival Fordham as the preparation that was necessary to compete against top-flight teams and players, both in college and professionally.

“People often say about big moments or pressure situations, ‘act like you’ve been there before,’ and because of our A10 rivalry with Fordham, I can actually live that feeling of performing well in high-pressure situations,” Plourde recalled.

Despite being underestimated for having played at mid-major schools, both Plourde and Prezioso have helped legitimize Atlantic 10 softball, while proving their worth on the professional and international stages. Both women have similarly used the underdog role to help propel their professional careers and pave the way for future post-graduate softball success of other mid-major players.

“It takes a lot of work, but having the drive and passion to work hard to play amongst the best in the world, especially after initially being over-looked, can be really rewarding,” Plourde attested. “Is one game going to make mid-major teams and players emerge as dark-horses? No, probably not. But why not keep building on it? It is definitely not out of the question.”

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.