Back in the playoffs for the first time in seven years, the Ursinus College softball team plans on overstaying its welcome.
The Bears are the No. 3 seed in the Centennial Conference tournament and are set to open their postseason journey on Tuesday at No. 2 Dickinson. Top-seeded Haverford entertains No. 4 Swarthmore in the other first-round matchup before hosting the rest of the tournament Friday and Saturday.
Ursinus enters the playoffs for the first time since 2012 as something of a Cinderella story, having been picked last in the CC preseason poll after going just 4-12 in league play a year ago. In fact, three-quarters of this year's tournament field was projected to finish outside the playoff cut line – Dickinson was on in the coaches' ballots, while Swarthmore was sixth.
The Bears shot past their preseason expectations to finish 20-17-1 overall and 10-6 in CC play, their first time hitting those respective win totals since their last playoff experience in the 2012 campaign. Much of that success has been due to the coalescence of a deep group of seniors and the emergence of several talented young stars.
Senior starters Kayla Quinn (shortstop), Gabrielle Manto (left field), and Sammi Donato (right field) have all eclipsed 100 career hits this season, and each is hitting .300 or better on the year. Donato leads the entire conference with a .426 average, while Quinn (.330, 2 HR, 29 RBI) tops the CC with eight triples and ranks fourth in RBI.
Freshman Mackenzie Brennan (.378, 1 HR, 22 RBI) is in the midst of a terrific rookie campaign, and sophomore Morgan Comfort (.350, 1 HR, 21 RBI) leads the team with 10 doubles. Sophomores Heather Lazer (.294, 2 HR, 25 RBI), Megan Hasulak (.296, 17 RBI), and Amanda Ladzinski (.305, 1 HR, 10 RBI) are all dangerous with the bat.
The Bears' offense has been terrific all season, leading the CC in triples (14), extra-base hits (86), sacrifice flies (17), and sacrifice hits (49) while ranking second in runs (204), doubles (63), batting average (.311), on-base percentage (.380), and slugging percentage (.425).
In the circle, the late ascension of a talented rookie has elevated the pitching staff to a new degree. Kayla McTamney has been locked in since becoming a regular starter midway through the season, going 6-3 with a team-best 2.68 ERA. The freshman allowed 65 hits over 68 innings, with 14 walks to 21 strikeouts.
Junior Jennifer Hammons has had a strong year, boasting a record of 8-10 with seven complete games and an ERA of 3.89. While McTamney pitches to contact, Hammons is more of a strikeout artist, ranking fifth in the conference with 5.58 punch-outs per seven innings and seventh with 76 total whiffs. Comfort logged a 3.32 ERA across 15 appearances (eight starts), but has shifted to the everyday center fielder with McTamney's emergence.
The Bears went 2-4 against the three other playoff teams, splitting with Haverford and Swarthmore and getting swept by Dickinson. Ursinus' doubleheader with Dickinson was the first of the Centennial Conference season and resulted in a pair of narrow victories for the Red Devils (5-3 and 2-1).
Like Ursinus, the Red Devils are back in the playoffs after a lengthy absence, their last appearance coming as the top seed in 2011. Dickinson is built on strong work in the circle, the headliner coming in the form of pitcher of the year in Madison Milaszewski. The senior leads the conference in ERA (1.16) and strikeouts (116), having allowed just 76 hits in 120.2 innings. Ursinus acquitted itself fairly well against the right-hander in the regular season, scoring three runs and forcing Milaszewski out of the game in the sixth inning.
Kat Vill has also been a dynamic arm for Dickinson, registering a 1.47 ERA in 14 appearances (six starts).
Dickinson has struggled at times on offense, hitting just .249 as a team with one home run collectively. Sophomores Brigitte Gutpelet (.311, 12 RBI) and Kristen Acocella (.306, 1 HR, 22 RBI), who each have four triples, have been the most effective batters for the Red Devils.
The losers of the first-round games will square off in Friday's opener at Haverford, with the winners to meet following the loser's bracket contest.
Ursinus is aiming for its first conference championship since 2008, when the Bears shut out Dickinson, 3-0, in the final. That season capped a run of five consecutive trips to the championship series, a run of dominance which the Bears hope to recreate – starting now.