‘Now we build from here’: Softball’s regional run sparks hope for next season

| Staff Writer

Softball finished the season with 28 wins, eight more than last year. (Lydia Nicholson | Student Life)

For first-year pitcher Maria Brooks, her debut season for the Washington University softball team initially carried a fair dose of uncertainty.

“I didn’t know much,” Brooks said after the season. “I just knew that the coach that recruited me had left, and they had this new coach, and it didn’t seem like they had done so good last year.”

After this season, however, there is little doubt about the team’s ability. Coming off a 20-18 2023 season, the Bears improved to 28-12 in head coach Casey Cromwell’s second season at WashU. The team clinched a berth in the NCAA regional tournament, which the Bears hosted for the first time in program history, before being eliminated in the regional finals.

By participating in the regional tournament, WashU had the chance to be one of 16 teams in Division III that advanced to the super regional round. The eight winners of super regionals then move on to the NCAA Division III Softball Championships, beginning on May 30 in Marshall, Texas.

WashU lost their first game of the double-elimination tournament, falling to the Greenville University Panthers 7-5. The Bears bounced back the next day with a 4-1 win over the Grinnell College Pioneers before an 11-4 victory in a rematch against Greenville, sending WashU to the finals of the tournament. However, the Bears ultimately lost in the finals to the Belhaven University Blazers in a 2-1 contest.

Despite the Bears’ defeat in the regional finals, Cromwell said the season as a whole was cause for optimism.

“Now [that] we’ve been [to the tournament], we realize how good we are,” Cromwell said. “Last year, we thought we were that good and we didn’t prove it.”

Brooks echoed her coach’s sentiment, emphasizing the moments where the team perhaps outperformed even their own expectations. Both Brooks and Cromwell pointed to WashU’s series victory over the No. 9 Case Western Reserve University Spartans as a turning point for the season.

“We went into Case fingers crossed, hoping we were going to split,” Brooks said. “[Some players] were like, ‘We’re gonna win!’ People were saying that, and some people probably believed it in a part of them, but realistically, we’re all like, ‘Maybe we’ll split.’”

After the Bears were able to take three out of four games over Case Western, however, the team’s confidence grew. While WashU ultimately finished just one game behind the Spartans for the University Athletic Association (UAA) title, it was a marked improvement over last season’s third-place conference finish.

“Through the exit meetings I’ve had thus far, everyone’s excited to get back, and now we build from here,” Cromwell said. “The goal next year is to get to [super regionals].”

Throughout the season, WashU’s strong play was made possible by a combination of consistency from returning players along with multiple breakout performances.

In her first year of college softball, Brooks led the UAA with a 1.62 ERA, earning the role of ace on an already-stacked WashU pitching staff. During their tournament run, the Bears relied on Brooks for 15 of their 27 innings pitched across four games. When Brooks wasn’t pitching this season, the Bears turned to juniors Jamie Burgasser (2.22 ERA) and Jordan Rossi (2.36 ERA) in addition to first-year Hattie Bond (2.62 ERA). By the end of the season, WashU’s four main starters all ranked Top 6 in the conference by ERA.

On offense, the Bears were led by junior Natalia Pilpil, who earned Division III All-Region First Team honors after hitting .412 with five home runs. Sophomore Sydney Schneider also had a breakout season, hitting .421 with 24 stolen bases after only recording 21 at-bats in her first season.

WashU’s departing players include seniors Emily Talkow, Ashley Kennedy, and Emma Urban, along with graduate student Payton Irwin. While the bulk of this season’s at-bats and innings pitched came from players who will return in 2025, Cromwell emphasized the off-the-field impact of the graduating players.

“There’s a lot of success that comes to the win column in our program because of the behind-the-scenes and what our captains are doing, what our seniors are doing, and the traditions they kept alive,” Cromwell said. “They’re kind of the unsung heroes.”

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