Finley Writing Dream Ending to College Career, Leading Princeton Softball into NCAA Regional
By Bill Alden
Melissa Finley produced a dream season for the Princeton University softball team in 2003 as a sophomore. The London, Ontario native hit .414, pounded out a school-record 12 homers and went 7-5 on the mound to lead the Tigers to their second straight Ivy League title and earn the Ivy Player of the Year award.
Last spring, though, turned into a bit of nightmare for the outfielder as her batting average dropped to .315, her homer total slipped to eight, and, most upsetting, Princeton ended up in the middle of the Ivy pack.
Determined to go out with a bang, Finley has recaptured some of the magic of 2003 by hitting .321 with six homers and 24 RBIs to help spark Princeton to the Ivy crown.
This weekend, Finley will achieve her dream of ending her career by competing with the Tigers in the NCAA tournament.
Princeton, currently 35-18 on the season, begins post-season play by facing Oklahoma State (33-22) this Friday in the Tucson regional which also includes Arizona (39-10) and Lehigh (41-8).
The survivor of the double-elimination competition advances to a Super Regional for a best-ofthree series against one of the other 15 regional winners.
For Finley and her teammates, advancing to the regional is the product of an effort that started last winter in their practice site in the bowels of Jadwin Gym.
"There was definitely a hunger in the off-season, there was no messing around," said Finley, who was recently named to the first-team All-Ivy team, making her a four-time all-league performer.
"We had a goal and we weren't willing to sacrifice it for anything. We started out great last year and we thought we could just coast through the rest of the season."
With other Tigers like Erin Snyder, Cristina Cobb-Adams, Amanda Erickson and Beth Dalmut sharing the offensive load, Finley hasn't had to duplicate the feats of her sophomore campaign.
"At the time, I thought I could do better," explained Finley. "Now looking back, I realize how lucky I was to keep my bat going the whole season. It's been so much easier this year with everybody stepping in and stepping up. I haven't had that same chest tightening like in the past."
Princeton head coach Maureen Barron thinks that having more offensive depth and relieving Finley of pitching responsibility has loosened her senior star this spring.
"I think last year so much pressure was put on Finley," said Barron. "This year it was nice for her to not have to carry the team on her back. She has had a great season. She has really stabilized the outfield for us."
Finley also provides stability offensively in clutch situations. "She is a player you definitely want at the plate in a pressure situation," said Barron of ¬Finley, who holds the program record with 35 homers and ranks third in RBIs with 119. "You can see by the look in her eyes that she has the confidence."
The arrival of Finley triggered a new confidence throughout the program. "She was in my first recruiting class," recalled Barron, whose other key senior is catcher Ty Ries. "That class really came in and set the tone for what I hope is the future of the program. They came in with a desire to win. They said we're going to do this and they did."
The Tigers have that winning desire as they head into the NCAAs, looking to get beyond the first round for the first time since 1996. They point to their 2-0 win over fifth-ranked Stanford earlier this spring as evidence that they can beat anybody.
"If we play the way we are capable of, we can beat anybody," said Barron, noting that she has received tremendous pitching all season from Snyder, the Ivy League Pitcher of the Year with a 16-4 record, and precocious freshman Kristen Schaus, the Ivy Rookie of the Year with a 14-8 mark. "In the win over Stanford, we had all parts of our game going."
Princeton, which hasn't played since sweeping a doubleheader from Rider on April 30, has had time to fine tune things for the challenges ahead.
"We have been going live against our own pitching in practice," said Barron, whose two top pitchers Snyder and Schaus have a combined ERA of 1.31.
"We have great pitching so it's nice to do that. The girls are excited to be at practice, they're chomping at the bit to get back on the field. We have the potential to surprise people and go further than in the past."
Finley, for her part, believes the Tigers are prepared to spring some surprises. "I feel like we are really focused right now," said Finley. "It's like we're back in preseason where we go back to basics. We are focused on the little things we need to do. I'm glad we're able to have this opportunity."
The NCAA tournament, though, won't be Finley's last softball opportunity as she'll be joining Team Canada in early June.
"I'll be playing in the Pacific Rim tournament in San Diego," said Finley, an economics major who has received a job offer from a financial company in her hometown. "I leave the day after graduation and it goes for two weeks. If I do OK they might keep me around for a couple of months."
If Finley performs anything like she has during her dream college career, she might have a lengthy stay on the national team.