May 11, 2022

Sparked by Blanchard’s Superb Pitching, Hitting, PU Softball Primed for Ivy Playoff Series against Harvard

ALL IN: Princeton University softball pitcher Ali Blanchard fires a pitch in a game earlier this spring. Junior star Blanchard has excelled with her arm and bat, helping Princeton win the Ivy League regular season title. The Tigers, 25-14-2 overall and 17-4 Ivy, will be hosting Harvard (21-18 overall, 15-6 Ivy) in a best-of-three Ivy Playoff Series this weekend which will determine the league’s automatic berth to the upcoming NCAA tournament. Game one is scheduled for May 13 with game two and game three, if necessary, slated for May 14. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

It didn’t take long for Ali Blanchard to sense that the Princeton University softball team could be special this year.

Upon returning to Princeton last fall after a gap year, junior Blanchard was impressed by the work ethic she saw across the board.

“I was super excited to get back, a few of us took the year off and it made us more appreciative of things,” said Blanchard. “Everyone was super excited to get working. I think from the fall everyone had a feeling that his Ivy League season was going to be a pretty good one, based on our practices and how everyone showed up ready to get better every day. As soon as we set foot on campus, everyone was willing to put in the extra work.”

After a rough start in Florida where the Tigers went 1-4, Princeton started picking up wins when it went 4-1 in the UCSB Tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., from March 11-13.

“I think everyone started to get their feet under them there,” said Blanchard, a 5’10 native of Lincoln, R.I. “We really started taking it game by game. Once we started to figure things out, I think everybody started to settle down.”

The Tigers got off to a big start in its Ivy campaign in mid-March, sweeping Brown in a three-game series as it posted 4-2, 2-0, and 7-0 wins.

“It was a good confidence booster for sure,” said Blanchard. “That was something that made us realize we can do it this year because I don’t think anyone saw that as our best softball. We wanted to peak at the right time. Every weekend, we keep trying to get better, even if it is one percent better.”

As the spring unfolded, the squad kept getting better and better, sweeping the last three Ivy weekends (over Yale, Penn, and Columbia) to earn the league’s regular season title.

This weekend, the Tigers, 25-14-2 overall and 17-4 Ivy, will be hosting Harvard (21-18 overall, 15-6 Ivy) in the best-of-three Ivy Playoff Series which will determine the league’s automatic berth to the upcoming NCAA tournament. Game one is scheduled for May 13 with game two and game three, if necessary, slated for May 14.

Blanchard has played a key role in the team’s success, starring as a pitcher and excelling with the bat. In the circle, Blanchard has gone 9-3 with a 2.52 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 100 innings. She has hit .273 with one homer and 11 RBIs.

In reflecting on her pitching, Blanchard credits her success to a group effort as the staff of Alexis Laudenslager, Molly Chambers, and Meghan Harrington has bonded.

“I have gotten more confident and comfortable as the season has gone on,” said Blanchard, who was named the Ivy Pitcher of the Week after Princeton swept Penn in a three-game set on April 23 and 24.

“I don’t know if there has been a weekend where I thought ‘that felt good.’ None of us are afraid to ask anyone else next inning if you see me doing this, yell it from the dugout or something like that. I can turn to Molly and say ‘was I doing this that inning’ and she will say ‘you looked a little tight, you need to do this.’ That will help me feel better. Whenever anyone goes in we feel that they are capable of getting the job done. We have a very special pitching staff right now.”

Doing well with the bat has helped Blanchard relax on the field.

“I love being able to be in the lineup too, it is a nice separation of the game,” said Blanchard. “When I am just pitching and not hitting, I notice myself thinking more about the pitching and dwelling on my mistakes a little longer. But when I am pitching and hitting, it is ‘all right, move on,’ and it makes the game more light.”

Princeton head coach Lisa Van Ackeren liked the way her team has raised its game after going 1-2 in a three-game set with Dartmouth on April 2-3.

“We have had a good stretch, our goal was always to peak at the right time and we are still becoming,” said Van Ackeren, whose team went 11-1 in its final 12 Ivy game with the three straight three-game sweeps down the stretch of the league campaign.

“That Dartmouth weekend was an inflection point for us where a good team can turn towards each other and other teams turn away. Our team turned toward each other and I think we are very committed to just continuing to get better. We knew we haven’t played our best ballgame, we have always been striving for that.”

The Tigers played some of their best ball in their final Ivy series, sweeping Columbia on April 30 and May 1 to clinch the regular season crown. Princeton’s 17-4 Ivy record is the best for any team in the league since Dartmouth went 18-2 in 2013 and it is the most league wins for the Tigers going 18-2 in 2008.

“We knew what we needed to do, the team was committed to taking advantage of being in control of our own destiny,” said Van Ackeren, whose team had victories of 8-4, 7-1, and 6-1 against the Lions.

“Our kids came in and managed their emotions really well. Our pitchers kept us in every game and gave us a chance to win and our offense did really well. It was both really exciting for them but also feeling like we are not done yet. It was one of the goals of our season but it didn’t feel like rush the field with everybody jumping up and down celebrating. It was like we took care of business and now we want to prove it and go to NCAAs. They are motivated by that.”

The team’s pitching staff has taken care of business with Blanchard and Laudenslager (10-7, 1.96 ERA) handling the starting duties and Chambers (5-2, 3.48 ERA, three saves) starring out of the bullpen.

“They are amazing, they really are, the whole staff,” said Van Ackeren. “They have each other’s backs, they understand what their role is on the team. They are super supportive, they are always helping each other with grip stuff and helping each other with their motion and asking each other, hey what are you working on today. You look around the league and that has been the difference-maker for us. We could literally have any one of those top three start any game and our team would find a way to win.”

Junior outfielder Serena Starks has been a difference maker at the top of the Tiger batting order, hitting .336 with a homer and 25 RBIs.

“Serena is so dangerous,” said Van Ackeren. “She can drop a bunt, she has hit home runs, triples, and doubles. She can stand and swing, she slaps, and she bunts. She is our best RBI kid, which is not typical of a leadoff hitter.”

The freshman trio of Sophia Marsalo (.346, 1 homer, 21 RBIs), Allison Ha (.333, 2 homers, 17 RBIs), and Lauren Sablone (.317, 4 homers, 21 RBIs) has helped trigger an offense that is batting at .294 clip.

“They can flat out hit so we just tried to help them with adjustments to college pitching and then stay out of their way,” said Van Ackeren. “We know what they are good at and staying in a good mental head space is the biggest aspect of this part of the season for them They have never done this before.”

Van Ackeren believes Princeton is in a good place as it hosts a Harvard team that it went 2-1 against in a three-game series from March 26-27.

“We are treating it as a fresh start, that is when our kids are at their best,” said Van Ackeren. “We anticipate seeing a different team this time around and we are also a different team. Harvard will take extra bases, they will run quite a bit so we are preparing for things like that. But most of it is focusing on what we do really well which is quality at-bats, with our pitchers prepared to compete in the zone with hitters and stay composed in tense big moments. We are not super emotional in those big moments.”

Blanchard, for her part, believes the Tigers will stay in the moment as they battle the Crimson.

“I think everyone is trying to go into the weekend loose and just trying to play the softball that we know how to play and not think too much about,” said Blanchard. “When we start to think too much about it, we get overly analytical about what we know they have done and what we know we can do. It is having the mindset that we are just going to react to whatever happens.”