Despite substantial losses, Warriors return experience, leadership
WATCH: Head Coach Diana Pepin (below, left) and senior All-America Arielle Cooper (below, right) are interviewed by Nick Aconfora previewing the season. (13.45)
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. -- In no other team sport is success more predicated on one position than it is in fastpitch softball, where a dominant pitcher can transform a bad team into a respectable one, a good one into a great one and a great one into a national champion.
Above: Senior pitcher Christine Akcer
For four years, four-time All-America Molly Rathbun was that pitcher for the Eastern Connecticut State University softball program, where her strong right arm turned a good - in many instances, very good - team into one which competed for national championships.
On Friday, 11 letterwinners - seven of them starters - will begin to address the question of whether a very good starting nine with the potential of playing outstanding defense and producing a large number of runs - is enough to return the Warriors to the NCAA Division III national tournament for the third time in four years.
Head coach Diana Pepin, who has coached and played on many of the best teams in program history - including a national champion -- feels that it could be.
"I would say that we are a slightly above-average team that has good cohesion, which I think makes a dominant team," says Pepin, already the program's winningest head coach heading into 12th season. "I will say that we will take some bumps and learn from them. But our offense and defense is solid. We won't get 300 strikeouts (Rathbun averaged 283 per season, twice eclipsing the 300-strikeout plateau in a season), but with this defense, there really is no reason to have physical errors."
At left: Senior All-America third baseman Arielle Cooper
For Eastern, the loss of Rathbun's arm (103 wins) and bat (28 HRs/303 total bases) are not the only hurdles to overcome in its quest for a sixth straight NCAA tournament berth and fourth consecutive Little East Conference regular-season and tournament titles. Also lost is All-New England Region rightfielder Priscilla Alicea - who amassed the most hits in program history over a four-year career - and pitcher/DP Kassondra Silva from a team which ripped off 40 straight victories and finished with a record 44 triumphs against but three losses in 2012.
The presumed return of Silva was expected to soften the blow of Rathbun's loss, but the backup pitcher (8-0 last year) and cleanup hitter (.314) sustained complications from the ACL surgery which kept her out of the 2011 season and will not return to complete her eligibility.
"This is going to be a pitching staff this year, and we have to figure out who complements who and how we can take advantage of their strengths," stresses Pepin.
The losses of Rathbun & Co. are more of quality than quantity, however; thus, the outside expectations remain high. For the third straight season, Eastern is the pre-season coaches' pick to repeat its LEC title, garnering six of eight first-place votes to earn a ten-point margin over runner-up Keene State College.
At right: Senior first baseman Kelly Paterson
The respect extends beyond the region, however, with the eight-member NFCA national poll board ranking Eastern among its Top 10 in each of the five polls to date. Before playing a game, Eastern moved ahead of 2012 regional champion Tufts University into sixth place nationally in what will be the final poll (released Wednesday) before the Warriors must begin to substantiate their lofty status on Friday with season-opening contests against Williams Paterson University and Concordia University-Wisconsin at Clermont, FL.
"Even though Molly and Priscilla were complete team players, their teammates knew that they could rely upon them heavily (last year)," said Pepin. "Now, the players have to rely upon everyone to contribute. They understand that from 1-through-18, we need everyone to contribute in some way, shape or form."
Rathbun's solo act may be replaced this year by a group effort consisting of senior Christine Akcer (Milford), sophomores Erin Miller (Waterford), Sam Rossetti (Shelton), and Shannon Martin (Wethersfield) and freshman Emily Komornik (Shelton).With a 19-5 record and 3.12 ERA in 44 career appearances, Akcer, who is slowly returning from a pre-season calf strain, is the only one of the five with substantial pitching experience on the college level. As freshmen, Miller and Rossetti saw a combined total of only seven innings spread over six relief appearances.
Despite the staff's relative inexperience, Pepin is encouraged by their off-season and pre-season work ethic and by their progress under the tutelage of Rathbun, serving this year as pitching coach.
The return of seven starters - including the catcher, three-quarters of the infield and two-third of the outfield -- could make up for the lack of a true pitching ace. The Warriors feature versatility, veteran leadership and post-season savvy in senior corner infielders Arielle Cooper (Mystic) and Kelly Paterson (Southington), and juniors Megan Godwin (Manchester), Megan Bondy (Mystic), Stephanie Johnson (Plantsville) and Mattie Brett (Waterford).
Cooper returns from a 2012 All-America season for her fourth starting season at third base and Paterson to her fourth starting season in the lineup, third at first base. The team's starting shortstop since Day 1, Godwin may alternate in the middle infield this year.
"Cooper and Kelly (Paterson) have been standouts for the past three years at the corners," praises Pepin. "I think that they're the rock and Godwin is the (vocal) leader."
Bondy will be the starting catcher for the second straight year after splitting duties as a freshman; Johnson has shared time in the outfield for two years but will be the opening-day leftfielder in 2013. Brett returns as the starting centerfielder after an all-conference freshman season in 2011 at shortstop at Endicott College (she was an All-State second baseman in high school).
Pepin points out that "Bondy has really matured behind the plate and understands what is expected. She has become more confident and more vocal."
A part-time leftfielder as a freshman, Martin will open the season in right field, while junior Jen Tamindzija (Malden, MA) will return to a regular spot in the infield after she recovers from a pre-season back injury.
At least three freshmen should have an immediate impact: catcher/DP/outfielder Alicia White (Colchester) and infielders Alyssa Hancock (Waterford) and Alyssa Dumphy (Southington). Either Rossetti or White will open at DP and will bat in the middle of the lineup, with Hancock expected to start in the middle infield. Dumphy will back up Cooper at third, while White may also see action in right.
Although inexperienced, the catcher spot is potentially deep behind Bondy, with sophomore Sarah Arburr (Bristol) and freshmen Taylor Smyth (Meriden) and White in the wings.
Veteran Katie Sokoloski (Eastford), the team's fourth senior, will provide leadership and maturity and will see action in the outfield.
Cooper, who obliterated the program's previous record with a 33-game hit streak last year, will open the season back in the leadoff spot, with Hancock batting second, Brett third and either Rossetti or the left-hitting White fourth. Batting lefty as well, Martin is fifth, Godwin sixth, Paterson seventh, Bondy eighth and the left-swinging Johnson ninth.
"I really think that our offense is potent," says Pepin. "We have no weak links from top to bottom. In past years, maybe 7-8-9 were kind of OK, but now you can't discount anybody."
Eastern plays ten games in six days in Florida before returning home for four consecutive home dates over the next eight days, opening the home and conference season March 30 against the University of Massachusetts Boston.