The Tufts University softball team completed an undefeated run through the 2013 NCAA Division III Championship, winning 6–5 over SUNY-Cortland on May 20 to earn the Jumbo program’s first national championship during the tournament at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s Gelein Field.
Head coach Cheryl Milligan’s Jumbos (46–3 for the season) scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to erase a 5–3 deficit and take a 6–5 lead that they would never relinquish. Sophomore centerfielder Michelle Cooprider hit a two-run double to tie the game, and sophomore second baseman Gracie Marshall’s single provided the game-winning RBI. Sophomore pitcher Allyson Fournier shut down Cortland in the sixth and seventh innings to close out the victory.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our team,” said Milligan, J98, G01.
“Playing in the national championship was the experience of a lifetime. It’s what you work towards during every early morning practice and lift, but you never imagine that you will actually be there,” says Fournier, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the tournament. “This championship was amazing because it was a total team effort. Everyone contributed in huge ways, and we wouldn’t have gotten there without every single player.”
The NCAA title is the second won by a Tufts team in 2012–13, joining field hockey’s first national title last fall. It is the first time in university history that women’s teams have taken NCAA crowns. Tufts teams have won three NCAA team championships in the past four years, including men’s lacrosse in 2010. The softball team is the first in New England to win the NCAA championship since Eastern Connecticut State University in 1990.
“From the beginning of the year, we knew that our goal was to be national champions and to have been able to execute and reach that goal is an incredible feeling,” says sophomore left fielder Bri Keenan. “It has been so much fun to be a part of a team with so much talent that also works hard and loves to be together.” For Keenen, this year has been a double joy, as she was on the NCAA championship field hockey team.
The Jumbos advanced to the championship series by winning their first three games in Eau Claire. They notched victories against Texas-Tyler (6–0) on May 17, Montclair State (3–1 in nine innings) on May 18 and Cortland (6–0) on May 19.
Earlier on Monday, Cortland (35–17) scored five runs in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the seventh to eliminate Salisbury 7–6, and earn the chance to face Tufts in the final. The Red Dragons continued their momentum against the Jumbos. Leftfielder Diane Cork opened the game with a lead-off home run against Fournier to put the Red Dragons in front 1–0. Cortland had three hits in the first inning, but Fournier limited the damage and ended the inning with a called strikeout.
The Jumbos evened the score at 1–1 in the bottom of the first when junior catcher Jo Clair hit a long home run to left-center. The Tufts defense committed its first error in four games at the NCAA finals, in the top of the second, but Cortland was unable to capitalize. Another long home run, this time by sophomore first baseman Kris Parr in the second inning, gave the Jumbos a 2–1 lead.
Red Dragons center fielder Cassie Kardias doubled with two outs in the top of the third, but Fournier got a ground out to end the inning. Tufts scored in each of the first three innings, with another in the third. Keenan was hit by a pitch with one out; Clair doubled her to third, and then Cortland opted to intentionally walk senior shortstop Emily Beinecke. However, a wild pitch by Red Dragons starter Amanda Corrigan allowed Keenan to score, giving Tufts a 3–1 lead.
Cortland showed great resiliency and surged to a 5–3 lead after scoring once in the fourth and three times in the fifth. Shortstop Erin Wolstenholme led off the fourth with a double and then scored when third baseman Courtney Kadish followed with an RBI single. In the fifth, the Red Dragons loaded the bases on singles by first baseman Alicia Hibbard, Kardias and designated hitter Nicole Gallo. Fournier struck out the next two, but couldn’t get out of the jam as junior catcher Briana Barca doubled to left-center scoring two. Right fielder Jamie Bucci then brought Gallo home on a squeeze bunt for a 5–3 Cortland advantage.
Tufts answered immediately, scoring three times in the bottom of the fifth. Keenan led off the inning with a walk. Clair’s hard shot to shortstop went for an error, putting runners on first and second with no outs. Beinecke hit into a fielder’s choice, but then Cooprider lined a double to left-center, scoring both Clair and Beinecke to tie the game. Marshall followed with a single to left-center, giving Tufts a 6–5 lead. The Jumbos had a chance to add insurance runs, but left the bases loaded.
Fournier allowed a one-out single to Hibbard in the top of the sixth, but otherwise shut down the Red Dragons. She set them down 1-2-3 in the seventh, with the final out recorded on a ground ball to first-year third baseman Christina Raso, who threw to Parr to begin the celebration.
Cortland had 12 hits and scored five runs against Fournier, but she got the job done for her fourth win of the tournament. She went all seven innings in the championship game, allowing five runs and striking out eight, with no walks and one hit batter. The victory was her 25th of the season, and she was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Championship Finals.
Cooprider, named to the All-Tournament team, finished the game 2 for 4, with two RBIs and a run. All-Tournament performer Clair was 2 for 4, with two runs and an RBI, while Parr went 2 for 3, with a run and an RBI. Beinecke was also selected All-Tournament.
Kardias led all hitters with a 3-for-4 performance, also scoring a run. Hibbard went 2 for 4 as the Red Dragons out-hit Tufts 12–8 in the game. Cortland made three pitching changes in the contest; Corrigan (20–7) took the loss.
The team has the depth to produce runs and “contain defensive situations with such graceful execution from everyone in our lineup,” says Beinecke. “Few teams can say this about their starting lineup and the players coming off the bench, and I think this accumulated trust in one another to get the job done, which has been paramount to the success of this team. Winning is just that much sweeter when we can say that it was a full team effort, and that’s my favorite part about this accomplishment.”
“It’s hard to feel much right now, because it’s very surreal,” says senior pitcher Rebecca DiBiase. “As a senior, it’s even stranger, realizing that my career ended the way every athlete dreams of. To be honest, I think we’re all just soaking it in, and trying to keep the memories of winning as fresh as possible.”
With four wins at the 2013 NCAA Finals, the Jumbos surpassed the three victories that the program had recorded in three previous trips to the Finals in 2012, 2009 and 2000. Tufts went 11–0 in the 2013 postseason (NESCAC and NCAA) and improves to 37–24 in NCAA tournament play overall. The Jumbos are now 7–6 overall in their four trips to the NCAA finals.
One of 404 NCAA Division III schools that field a softball team, Tufts started its championship season on March 16 with a 13–4 win over Bethany (W.Va.). The Jumbos would go on to capture their second straight conference title (eighth overall) and second consecutive NCAA Regional title (fourth overall) before winning it all.
Tufts Sports Information Director Paul Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com.