From hacky-sack to a 15-inning game, softball narrowly loses at NCAA regionals

| Managing Sports Editor

Head coach Michelle Venturella pays her infield a visit during the team’s matchup against the Emory Eagles on their home field. (Photo by Clara Richards / Student Life)

This past weekend, the Washington University softball team played 36 innings over three days as it competed for a regional title and a chance to proceed to the super regionals round of the NCAA tournament. 

They also played a lot of hacky-sack. 

They played in the airport, attracting some suspicious side-eyes from fellow passengers. They played in the hotel, bringing the ball out whenever they had a spare minute. And after a 15-inning marathon of a game on Saturday, which they narrowly lost 4-3, they didn’t just toss a softball in the time before their next game. Instead, the team got in a circle and played hacky-sack again. After focusing for three hours and thirty four minutes, the “hackying” allowed them to relax, take a mental break and regroup for the winner-take-all second game.

The hacky-sack didn’t magically give them the victory later that afternoon, where they battled against Bethel University to lose 6-5 in another tight matchup. It didn’t suddenly make the long bus ride home from Minnesota any easier. But the ability to decompress as a team — to get out of the dugout and spend time together — represents how this team sticks together throughout the positives, the negatives and everything between.

“Of course, it hurts when you give it your all, and you still fall short. But we did it together,” said rising junior Ashley Kennedy. “We all fought so hard and played with our hearts. So it’s a bittersweet thing. Because while we did fall short — and it could have just easily gone the other way — we can walk away knowing that it’s something to be proud of.” 

This weekend represented the first NCAA appearance for the team since 2017. The team’s success can be attributed to a few things: for one, the Bears had a strong lineup of pitchers, from experienced upperclassmen to new underclassmen. The experience of the senior class also benefited the team’s batting, with hitters like Katie Gould and Tami Wong anchoring the lineup.

The first game showcased the strength of the program with a 7-0 blowout victory against Buena Vista. Pitcher Holly Stoner set the tone for the team, and their defense was impermeable to Buena Vista’s efforts at the plate. Wong led the team with three RBI off of two hits, and Gould landed three hits from five at-bats.

In the team’s Saturday game, the Bears narrowly beat Bethel University 2-1. Gould went 2 for 2, and Wong and Natalia Pilpil each had one RBI. Madison Denton pitched the win, again highlighting the dependability of the senior class.

At the conclusion of Saturday’s play, the team didn’t entirely know which opponent they’d face from the loser’s bracket, but head coach Michelle Venturella’s message to the team was unchanged regardless. No matter who they were playing, they’d show up and take care of the things they could control. “The team was all in, all the time; this group was willing to do whatever it took to help the team succeed,” Venturella said. “When you have that kind of mindset, and that kind of culture, good things happen.” 

Despite the close first victory, the Bears were unable to get past Bethel and dropped two games on Sunday by one run. The 15-inning first game was both emotionally and physically intense, with both teams unwilling to relinquish. “It was one of the craziest softball games I’ve ever played,” Kennedy said. “It was just so much heart and intensity driving it, and no one was willing to give up. Sadly, we were the ones that fell short, but it was an amazing game to be a part of.” 

“While it was so stressful, leading up to the weekend, those intense games are the type of games that we live for,” Kennedy added. “The most fun games are the tough games, where you really have to compete.”

The second game on Sunday was an if-necessary matchup.  While the Bears were ultimately unable to change the momentum in their favor, losing 6-5, the matchup showcased the team’s strength throughout their batting order.  Every player in the lineup landed a hit, and shortstop Kirsten Drabek had a particularly competitive outing with two hits and two RBIs.

The success of this team can directly be credited to the players and the coaching staff. But another underlying change for this team is the renovation of the field. The softball’s facilities were upgraded to a turf field, a change which Venturella said had a huge impact on the team’s season. At one point last season, the team only had five practices in four weeks because of weather that made the field unplayable. “We’ve had a lot of trouble getting games in the past two years,” Venturella said. “We’re so thankful to our Athletic Director, Anthony Azama, for getting it done…we played 40 games, and we got to see the results of what that is when you have a chance to get on the field.”

While this team fell short of advancing, it’s impossible to be pessimistic about their future. They  showed their ability and potential against nationally competitive opponents, and the underclassmen gained experience in the postseason that can only help them later on. Rising sophomore Jamie Burgasser pitched eleven innings on Sunday and only allowed three earned runs. Offensively, Maggie Baumstark continued to lead the team in hits, home runs and total bases, and Pilpil hit the most doubles out of the lineup. “Bottom line, those 10 freshmen made a huge impact on why we were here at the end,” Venturella said. “I think having that experience coming back is going to help us, especially when I look at the freshman. They’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their careers, and they’re going to want it even more.”  

The team will also see two key members of the senior class stay at WashU and use their extra year of eligibility. Stoner, who pitched a 2.00 ERA and threw 11 wins this season, will be returning. In addition, leadoff hitter Gould will come back for another year, a testament to the culture that Venturella has cultivated.

“This has been one of my favorite teams to coach,” Venturella said. “The takeaways are that the things we worked on all year happened in the moments they needed to: the resilience, competitiveness and their willingness to leave it all on the field and just play the game to the best of their ability and not worry about the outcome.”

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