March 30, 2022

Never Losing its Confidence After Starting 1-8, PU Softball Surges into 1st Place in Ivy Standings

BLAST OFF: Princeton University softball player Adrienne “A.J.” Chang belts the ball in recent action. Junior star Chang has been an offensive catalyst for the Tigers this spring, hitting a team-high .397 and two homers and 10 RBIs. Princeton, now 11-10 overall and 5-1 Ivy League, will look to stay atop the league standings as it hosts a three-game series against Dartmouth on April 2-3 with a doubleheader slated for Saturday and a single game on Sunday. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Although the Princeton University softball team lost eight of its first nine games this spring as played its first steady string of games since 2019, its players weren’t discouraged.

“I think the team has been really bought into understanding the growth that is going to happen throughout the season and not taking any of the results early on too seriously,” said Princeton head coach Lisa Van Ackeren. “They understand the context of where we are. We basically have three classes of freshmen in terms of collegiate at-bats.”

The Tigers displayed that growth by posting wins in 10 of their next 12 games, including sweeping Brown in a three-game series to start Ivy League play and then going 2-1 at Harvard last weekend in their second league series.

“There are a couple of people who are really catching on,” said Van Ackeren. “I think the next few weeks are going to be exciting to see what we can do.”

Last weekend, Princeton came through in an exciting three-game set with the Crimson, getting edged 2-1 by Harvard in the opener of a doubleheader on Saturday and then coming back to win the nightcap 5-4 and then post a 5-1 win a day later to win the series.

“At the end of the first game, it came down to the very last out,” recalled Van Ackeren. “We had the bases loaded with two outs. In that whole inning we were very much believing that we were going to win that game, we believed we were going to come back and do it. They weren’t down at all in game two. They came right back and said we need to play better, let’s show up a little bit more offensively. It is really good resilience.”

The Tigers have been getting some really good pitching with the one-two tandem of starters, junior Ali Blanchard and junior Alexis Laudenslager, along with sophomore Molly Chambers and freshman Meghan Harrington coming out of the bullpen. Blanchard is 4-2 with 68 strikeouts in 46.2 innings while Laudenslager, who threw a no-hitter in a 2-0 win over Brown on March 20, is 5-6 with 63 strikeouts in 56.0 innings.

“Ali has grown so much since her freshman year, she took a gap year last year with COVID,  understanding that the likelihood of us playing was low,” said Van Ackeren. “She has been super mature and grounded on the mound. She doesn’t get rattled easily; she wants to be in those moments now. It angers her when big hits are given up. Alexis was phenomenal against Harvard. It goes back to the mental game, she is talented for sure. Harvard is classically a team that makes really good offensive adjustments and to have a career-high 11 strikeouts on the second day after facing them for six innings the first day and getting beat, I just don’t see that happening often. She is just super mentally tough and very competitive. I think for every good team you need a good pitching staff and we have got it.”

Princeton is getting some super offensive production from junior standout Adrienne “A.J.” Chang, who is hitting a team-high .397 with two homers and 10 RBIs.

“She is our offensive leader, no question; A.J. is someone who has shown up offensively this entire year,” said Van Ackeren. “That is cool because she has worked really hard to earn that. She is someone who doesn’t take any result, good, bad or otherwise too seriously. I think the team really looks to her for guidance and mentality.”

Van Ackeren has been looking to junior outfielder Serena Starks to get things going from the leadoff spot in the batting order.

“Serena is amazing, she is just such a threat in so many ways,” said Van Ackeren of Starks, who is hitting .297 with a team-high 13 runs. “She runs well, she can stand and swing, she will drop a bunt on any count. She is just so hard to defend. She provides that spark. She is going to four at-bats a game and you want her in the box whenever possible. She is somebody who just gives our offense confidence.”

The Tigers never lost their confidence collectively despite the rocky start this spring.

“Our team was just really tough early and believed that we were going to continue to get better and believed in the team that we knew we could be,” said Van Ackeren. “That is what I am most proud of. The tone in our dugout is just so fun. They are enjoying playing softball; that is what you hope after all of this.”

After seeing the 2020 campaign halted after eight games due to the global pandemic and then getting just three games last spring in a season curtailed by ongoing COVID-19 concerns, the Princeton players are bringing a different perspective to the diamond this spring.

“We had two years without sports, so to have the lights on and your uniform on and when a game really matters, wouldn’t you choose this than just practicing with no game to shoot for,” said Van Ackeren. “That is the whole point. Very few teams win championships so there has got to be more to it. We have goals and we know what we are capable of. I think they really believe in coming together and seeing what we can do to reach our potential.”

As Princeton resumes Ivy play by hosting a three-game series against Dartmouth on April 2-3 with a doubleheader slated for Saturday and a single game on Sunday, Van Ackeren believes her players will keep striving to grow.

“I think what is compelling is that the team really believes they can do something special and when that is coming from the locker room, that is the best,” said Van Ackeren. “They are internally, intrinsically motivated, just the group of them. It is cool. We believe that we can beat any team that we play so we want to put our best foot forward. We are still searching, we haven’t played our best game. You want to be able to peak at the right time for sure.”