Saxons make history on the diamond
In what was a historic season for the Alfred University softball team, the Saxons shattered the school record for wins in a season, attained its first-ever national ranking, and earned the first NCAA playoff berth in the program’s 17-year history.
With only four seniors (three starters) lost to graduation and a sizeable recruiting class coming in, AU will look to build on its success. Six Empire 8 Conference all-stars, five of them NFCA All-Region performers, form the foundation for 2011. They include sophomore utility player Nicole Hedrick, who set numerous school batting and pitching records en route to being named Empire 8 Player of the Year and earning All-American recognition, and freshman catcher Emily Fenton, the conference’s Rookie of the Year.
Head coach Gino Olivieri has been the architect of the Saxons’ amazing run, turning around a program that before his arrival had won 90 games and lost 183 in 12 seasons. In Olivieri’s first five years as coach, the Saxons have gone 121-70, setting school records for wins in a season each year from 2007-10 and making the Empire 8 Conference championship tournament four times. Olivieri, a two-time Empire 8 Coach of the Year (2008, 2010) guided AU to its first-ever Empire 8 regular season title (13-1 record, tied with Ithaca) and took the Saxons to their first-ever NCAA Regional.
Along the way, the Saxons won a school-record 21 straight games and knocked off nationally-ranked teams three times: Cortland twice (ranked eighth in the regular season and sixth in the NCAA Regional) and Lebanon Valley (ranked 21st in the NCAA Regional). Of the Saxons’ eight losses, one was to Division II Upper Iowa, one was to Cortland (ranked eighth at the time) and four were to Ithaca (ranked 24th after winning the NCAA Regional and advancing to the Division III College World Series).
Olivieri said he knew his team was bound for something special when the players returned from winter semester break and began preseason preparations. That despite the fact that only three seniors remained from the 14 in his first recruiting class in 2007, and only two were left from his 2008 class. Five starters and four other letterwinners from last season’s 27-11 squad would have to be replaced.
“After losing nine girls (from 2009), I was concerned. I just wanted to get to the Empire 8 playoffs, because then anything can happen,” Olivieri said, referring to the automatic NCAA bid awarded to the Empire 8 tournament champion.
“But when we got back from winter break and had a few practices, I told them this is the best team I’ve had here. And it wasn’t just because of the talent; it was as much because of team chemistry. That aspect was phenomenal. All they cared about was playing together as a team and winning ball games. So I knew we had something early on. I knew something special was going to happen.”
Something special did happen. The Saxons blended the experience and leadership of its veterans with the eager enthusiasm of inexperienced youngsters placed into prominent roles. The result was solid play in all phases of the game, as the Saxons used strong pitching (1.30 team ERA, 12 shutouts), sure-handed defense (.956 fielding percentage) and exceptional hitting (.324 team batting average) to outscore opponents, on average, 6.2 runs to 2.2 runs.
Hedrick and junior Chelsey Cary were outstanding in the pitcher’s circle all year. Hedrick went 19-4 (the 19 wins are a new school single-season mark) with a 1.32 ERA and 116 strikeouts. Her 31 pitching wins in two seasons is tied for the all-time AU record. Cary, the school’s career leader in shutouts (11) posted an 18-3 record and 1.09 earned run average. Her 138 strikeouts set a new school single-season record and her six shutouts tied the school mark. Among her shutouts were two no-hitters, thrown during Alfred’s spring trip to Florida. Earlier in the year, she tied the school single-game record for strikeouts (12, vs. D’Youville).
Hedrick’s contributions at the plate were equally noteworthy. She led the team in batting (.429), on-base percentage (.465), slugging (.721), and homeruns (9) and also had 32 RBIs (second on the team) and 12 doubles (third). She set new school single-season records in runs (46), hits (66) and stolen bases (25). Hedrick was named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) Second Team All-American (Alfred’s first ever) and an NFCA Northeast Region First Team all-star, while Cary, and Empire 8 First Team selection, was named to the NFCA Northeast Region’s Second Team.
Fenton, a redshirt freshman after missing the 2009 season with injury, stepped in and played like a veteran, batting .328 with 41 hits, 22 runs, and 28 RBIs and being named an NFCA First Team Northeast Region all-star. Her 14 doubles ranked second on the team and her four homeruns ranked third. She had a slugging percentage of .536 and an on-base percentage of .343 and was solid behind the plate, throwing out 40 percent (12 of 30) of runners attempting to steal and picking off five others.
Olivieri faces the task of replacing three seniors (all of them four-year starters). They include second baseman Karen Folt, shortstop Jesika LeBarron, and centerfielder Shannon Mather. Also lost to graduation is senior first baseman-designated player Jessica French, who played her first three years at RIT before transferring to AU in the fall.
Folts, a two-time Empire 8 all-conference pick, missed 16 games to injury and batted .211 with 10 runs and 11 RBIs. Coming into the season, she had a career average of .364 with 83 runs, 16 homeruns and 92 RBIs. LeBarron, playing shortstop after three seasons at third base, had a great senior season, batting .333 with 41 hits (including five homeruns, second on the team), 30 runs and 30 RBIs, with a slugging percentage of .537 and on-base percentage of .434 (second on the team). LeBarron, a two-time Empire 8 all-star and three-time NFCA all-region performer (Third Team in 2010), will leave AU with school records for hits (171), batting average (.373), homeruns (23), RBIs (123), runs (103), doubles (35). Mather hit .280 with 16 runs scored and 17 driven in.
“Our seniors are going to be missed tremendously,” Olivieri commented. “We lose two captains — our middle infielders — and our starting centerfielder. That’s our nucleus. But we have some very good players coming back, and some good recruits coming in.”
Much of the team’s success in 2010 can be attributed to players stepping up this season and making major contributions. They include sophomore leftfielder Angela Netta, sophomore third baseman Molly Shepherd, junior first baseman Ashley Passaro, junior designated player Shanna Ewoldt and freshman catcher-designated player Hana Gross.
Netta, who made only a handful of starts and was used primarily as a pinch runner as a freshman in 2009, made the most of her opportunity this year, starting 44 of 45 games and batting .378 (second on the team) with 45 hits (third) and 28 runs. She had three homeruns and 20 RBIs, a .487 slugging percentage, a .415 on-base percentage, and stole eight bases in nine attempts. Netta was named an Empire 8 First Team all-star and an NFCA First Team Northeast Region all-star.
Shepherd was an NFCA Second Team Northeast Region all-star and earned honorable mention from the Empire 8. She had 52 hits (second on the team and third on Alfred’s all-time single-season list), scored 38 runs (second on the team and second all-time at AU), and drove in 26. Shepherd had two triples and three homeruns, slugged .552 (second on the team) and had an on-base percentage of .405.
Passaro rebounded nicely from a sub-par 2009 season, when she struggled with injury. An Empire 8 and ECAC all-star as a freshman in 2008, when she batted .457 with 34 RBIs, Passaro saw her numbers dip in 2009: .214 average, nine RBIs. This year, she hit .320 with 13 runs, three homeruns and a team-leading 33 runs batted in, and earned honorable mention from the Empire 8. Ewoldt, who saw action in only six games in 2009 after transferring to AU from Augustana, played in 37 contests this year and hit .274 with 23 runs, three homers and 20 RBIs. Gross, limited to occasional pinch-hitting duty for the first half of the season, played in 18 games and made six late starts, finishing with a .346 batting average (nine for 26) with six runs scored and five driven in. Freshman second baseman Kassandra Corsi was inserted at second base while Folts was injured and batted .256 with 18 runs and 11 RBIs.
“Just look at what some of our players accomplished,” Olivieri said. “We had girls, some who didn’t play much at all last year, step up and really contribute.”
Other members of the 2010 Saxons include: freshmen outfielders Erin Johnstone and Laura Haas. Johnstone was used mostly as a pinch runner and scored eight runs. Haas saw action in 11 games (one start) and had three hits and drove in two runs.
For Olivieri — and Folts, LeBarron and Mather — 2010 is the culmination of a journey that began four years ago.
“I told my first recruiting class that our goal was to get a banner up on that wall,” he said, referring to the banners on the wall of the McLane Center gymnasium that commemorate each team that has participated in an NCAA championship tournament over the years. “Three of the girls saw that come true.”
Alfred’s success in 2010 bodes well for the future. Of the 16 players on this year’s roster, 12 return in 2011, and all but four of them were either freshmen or sophomores this year. Olivieri expects a recruiting class of more than a dozen for 2011, providing across-the-board depth to a Saxons team poised to compete for an Empire 8 title and a return trip to the NCAA tournament. As Olivieri is quick to admit, the bar has been raised.
“Winning the conference, hosting the Empire 8 tournament, going to the NCAAs: You get a taste of that and you don’t forget it. I have a lot of underclassmen who want to taste it again. And they’re looking to go farther, past the regionals and into the NCAA finals. That will be the expectation.”