April 5, 2023

Princeton Softball Tied Atop Ivy League Standings, But Believes There is Plenty of Room to Improve

STARK DIFFERENCE: Princeton University softball player Serena Starks takes a cut in recent action. Senior Starks has been a catalyst as the Tigers have won nine of their last 11 games and are tied with Harvard atop the Ivy League standings. The Tigers, now 13-14 overall and 7-2 Ivy, host Lehigh on April 5 and then welcome Columbia for a three-game set with a doubleheader on April 8 and a single game on April 9. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Although the Princeton University softball team has won nine of its last 11 games and is tied with Harvard atop the Ivy League standings, Lisa Van Ackeren knows that her squad has plenty of room to grow.

“We haven’t hit our stride yet,” said Princeton head coach Van Ackeren, whose team won two out of three games last weekend at Penn and is now 13-14 overall and 7-2 Ivy. “We are winning games. We are in a place where we are tied for first and all of those things are great after three weekends of league play, but we haven’t played our best game yet. In some ways that is frustrating, but also in other ways really exciting. There are a lot of good things to come.”

The Tigers have been showing some good things in close games.

“We have been tallying about finding many different types of ways to win,” said Van Ackeren, whose team topped Penn 7-0 last Friday before splitting a doubleheader with the Quakers on Sunday, falling 6-3 in the opener before winning the nightcap 3-1. “We had a really big win against Yale (12-0 on March 18) in our first game, then we had a comeback win (5-4 on March 18), then we had a walk-off win (3-2 on March 19). Winning one-run games is really difficult to do. We have been privileged enough to have won a lot of them lately. We were losing a lot of really close games in the early part of the year and that didn’t sit well with the team. The good thing is that we are in a spot where we are used to playing close games and we are more comfortable in those situations.”

Princeton is privileged to have senior pitching ace Alexis Laudenslager leading its mound staff.

“Alexis has been amazing and she is doing what Alexis does, which is just outperforming people,” said Van Ackeren of Laudenslager, who is 6-8 with a 2.41 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 75.2 innings with two no-hitters and was named the Ivy Pitcher of the Week after earning two wins in the Penn series.

“She is always a pitch or step ahead. Her stuff is really good. She has the experience factor that she didn’t have last year, so I think that gives her just an advantage to have been in a ton of really great games. We have played a really tough schedule preseason this year and she wanted every tough matchup. She has been phenomenal for us.”

The squad’s other pitchers, sophomore Meghan Harrington (0-1, 3.16 ERA with 28 strikeouts in 26.1 innings), freshman Brielle Wright (3-3, 3.37 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 43.2 innings), and junior Molly Chambers (4-2, 3.43 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 34.2 innings), have been showing some good stuff.

“Our whole pitching staff has been good; Meg has thrown one bad pitch quite literally in the last two weeks,” said Van Ackeren. “Brielle has been great for us too, she is a lefty who has got a ton of potential and has had a lot of really good game experience. Molly has that bulldog mentality, you can put her in basically any situation and she is going to fight. The team responds really well to her because when she is on the mound, she is giving everything she has to every inning. She has played a lot of different roles in her career for us and had grown accustomed to each of them.”

Senior outfielder Serena Starks (.354, 1 homer, 17 runs, 10 RBIs) has been giving the Tigers a great spark from the leadoff spot.

“Serena has been great, she is a captain for us and is often the one in the huddle when we need a grounding voice,” said Van Ackeren. “I think people trust her because of the type of person she is and what she has been able to produce. She is a great kid and a great athlete. We are lucky to have her. She is someone you want to be affiliated with. She just raises everyone’s level as far as culture and character.”

Another senior, Adrienne Chang (.346, 1 homer, 5 runs, 10 RBIs), has been productive with the bat.

“I feel like this weekend was the quintessential AJ that we expect,” said Van Ackeren. “She is not just putting the ball hard in the air somewhere, but she is squaring up with hard ground balls. That is when she is at her best. There were a lot of good things that came out of the weekend for her. She looked really good this weekend so I am excited to see what she will do the rest of this year.”

Junior shortstop Grace Jackson (.270, 8 runs, 8 RBIs) and sophomore Allison Ha (.286, 3 homers, 9 runs, 8 RBIs) have provided some exciting moments so far this spring.

“They are two very different style players and we really need both of them to be successful in the league, just with what they bring and have proven that they can do,” said Van Ackeren. “Grace is just scrappy, she is always going to fight and find her way on base. Ali is one pitch away from a double off the wall or a home run. She is just so dangerous, you can just never count her out. She is one of those rare hitters that although she goes through a dry spell, she is never really in a slump.”

Van Ackeren is counting on her squad to excel in an Easter week homestand as it hosts Lehigh (27-6) on April 5 and then welcomes Ivy rival Columbia (10-14 overall, 6-3 Ivy) for a three-game set with a doubleheader on April 8 and a single game on April 9.

“We are just excited to be at home; we had our Yale series but we just haven’t played at home as much yet,” said Van Ackeren. “It feels good to have four home games in the next week to really ground ourselves in Princeton softball. We play well at home and enjoy being here. I am excited for good practices this week. Lehigh got us in two early season games down in Florida (a 5-3 loss on March 12 and a 5-1 loss on March 15). We didn’t have our best stuff then; that will be exciting and a tune-up for the weekend. Columbia ripped off three wins this weekend. It is always an exciting matchup with them, they play with a lot of competitive fire. Our players like those high energy games.”