Amid the never-ending cold and snow-filled backdrop of Princeton’s campus, the softball team is just over a week away from kicking off its 2014 season. In her second year as head coach, Lisa Sweeney will try to improve upon the 27-19 mark she set during her first year at the helm. With a strong returning roster, the Tigers will also look for further success in the Ivy League, as their 12-8 conference record in 2013 marked the team’s most Ivy League wins since 2008.
A number of strong returners will look to power the Tigers offensively and defensively. Junior second baseman Rachel Rendina returns for her third year of action, coming off a monstrous year in which she recorded 50 hits. In addition to Rendina, the Tigers also return five of the six players who hit over .300 last season. On the defensive side, sophomore Shanna Christian, a 10-game winner in 2013, will return to the mound to build off a strong freshman campaign in which she maintained a 3.00 ERA.
This year will be one of the busiest seasons in program history, as the Tigers gear up to play 47 games against 25 different opponents over the next three months. Despite the chaotic whirlwind that comes with constant play, the Tigers are more than ready to return to the diamond.
“I’m really excited going into this season,” Rendina said. “I think we’re more confident than we’ve ever been, both because of the number of returning players and because of the strong impact the freshmen will have this season.”
“I think our hard work in the off-season will pave the way for a really strong start come Feb. 28,” Christian said. “We’re excited to have had last season as fuel for this season. It definitely gave us, collectively and individually, the confidence we needed to win games. Last year gave us a taste of the success we strive for, but I think we have stepped it up and are all showing a lot of grit and grind right now so that we can come out on top in May.”
Despite the Tigers’ strong 2013 season, the Tigers will not be the ones with the targets on their backs in the Ivy League this spring. After its 30-win season and Ivy League title last year, Penn will be the team that every team in the conference is gunning for once league competition starts.
“I think Penn is our biggest competition in the South [Division],” Rendina said. “It was a critical series for us last season, and it probably will be again this year. In the North, I really think it’s anybody’s game. We will have to be ready for whoever we face.”
“We have a really great shot at the title this year,” Christian said. “We’ve really got a lot of things going for us on every level. But, of course, Penn will put up a good fight, as well as Harvard and Dartmouth most likely. Fortunately, we have a home field advantage on all of them this year, which will hopefully give us the crowd energy we need to win these eight games.”
Despite the intense competition to come, the Tigers know that there were vital lessons learned in 2013 that they can put to use in just over a week, lessons that are both individual and team-wide.
“I was so fortunate to come in as a freshman pitcher with two senior pitchers, Alex Peyton and Liza Kuhn, to learn from,” Christian said. “Collegiate softball is a whole different ball game, and I was able to take notes for a whole year from two of the best pitchers in the league. I learned a lot about resilience from these two, and I think that is the most valuable lesson they could have given me. This off-season has definitely tested my resilience, throwing a shoulder injury and a knee injury my way. It’s limited a lot of my physical preparation, but I feel like this has given me time to work on my mental game. Overcoming an injury or two has been very difficult, but it has forced me to think about how I can provide for my team in other ways.”
“We did have a great season last year, and I think that being so close to an Ivy championship makes us want it even more this year,” Rendina said. “Last year, we learned that every single play of every single game really matters, and that one play can change the course of a game.”
Like all teams approaching the spring season, the softball team faces its own challenges. The cold weather and the prospect of injuries are the two largest problems the Tigers face at the moment.
“February is always a long, tough month,” Rendina said. “All we can do is practice in the pit and imagine what it will be like to play games outdoors. Some of our biggest challenges will come in staying focused on what our ultimate goal is, even though we won’t be playing outside until we’re in Florida at the beginning of March.”
“A large issue on our team is staying healthy,” Christian said. “We push ourselves really hard every day because we all want so badly to take the championship home this year. The problem is it’s only February, and we are seeing a lot of nagging injuries come up. And the intensity only picks up from here. We really need to make sure we have 19 able bodies ready to play by the time we get to Ivies.”
The Tigers will play 22 games before they even touch the dirt of Class of 1895 Field. A five-game stretch in Orlando marks the beginning of the Tigers’ season from Feb. 28 to March 2. Tournaments in Maryland, San Jose and Santa Clara follow during the first three weeks of March. The Tigers kick off their home season on Wednesday, March 26 against Monmouth at 4 p.m.