May 1, 2024

Sparked by Junior Sablone’s Clutch Hitting, PU Softball Aiming to Place 1st in Ivy Standings

BAT CONTROL: Princeton University softball player Lauren Sablone lays down a bunt in a 2023 game. Last weekend, junior outfielder Sablone was productive with the bat as the Tigers played a three-game set against Brown. Salve wet 4 for 11 with three runs, two RBIs, and one homer. Despite Sablone’s heroics, the Tigers went 1-2 in the set, splitting a doubleheader on Saturday, losing 6-4 in eight innings and then winning 5-4 before getting edged 2-1 on Sunday. Princeton, now 24-13 overall and 12-6 Ivy League, was slated to play as Lehigh on April 30 before resuming Ivy play by hosting Cornell for a doubleheader on May 4 and a single game on May 5. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Lauren Sablone has figured out how to handle success. Now her Princeton University softball team must do the same.

Junior outfielder Sablone homered and scored the walk-off run on a triple by Julia Dumais last Saturday in the second game of a three-game weekend series against visiting Brown, but that was Princeton’s only win against the Bears as Princeton failed to clinch a spot for the Ivy League tournament. The first-place Tigers, now 24-13 overall and 12-6 Ivy, still have a lead over Harvard and Yale, who have finished their Ivy play with 14-7 marks.

“Even though this weekend didn’t necessarily go our way result-wise, I think it was a good kind of check-in for us that nothing along our path up to this point has been easy,” said Sablone, a 5’8 native of North Reading, Mass. “And it’s just kind of a reminder that it’s not going to get any easier. Things are only going to get harder, and that’s something that we have to be prepared for.”

After a non-conference game at Lehigh slated for April 30, Princeton will be home again for a three-game weekend against Cornell with a doubleheader on May 4 and a single game on May 5. The seventh-place Big Red are already eliminated from Ivy tournament contention, but could play spoiler if Princeton is looking ahead at all.

“We definitely didn’t talk about being in first place or kind of the position that we were in before the weekend, but I do think there was an underlying sense of we’re kind of in a great position and sometimes our own potential scares us,” said Princeton head coach Lisa Van Ackeren. “So I think we played defensively. I think that definitely influenced the outcomes.”

Sablone understands well the attitude that the Tigers have to take in the face of a pressure spot. She is back to playing the way that she expects of herself after a down year at the plate last year. Sablone was a revelation as a freshman when she hit .333 with six home runs and 30 RBI. But last year, she felt the pressure of following that up and hit .237 with only one homer and 12 RBI.

“I’m used to putting a lot of pressure on myself and feeling like I always want to be the one to step up and get everything done,” said Sablone. “And I think that when you put that much pressure on yourself it makes things mentally a lot harder and then it translates to the physical difficulty too.”

Sablone has bounced back in a big way this spring. She is second on the team in hitting at .373 with five home runs and a team-high 28 RBI. Her strikeouts are nearly half of where they ended last year. She has a career-high 44 hits heading into the final weekend, and Sablone says her bounce back season has as much to do with the group surrounding her as her own work.

“I’m trusting in my training and then also being able to trust in my teammates,” said Sablone. “Definitely I’ve been able to play so much more free this year because I’ve kind of just mentally changed so much in the past two years and just grown a lot. My teammates are the biggest part of it, so trusting in them is kind of what allows me to play a little bit freer.”

Sablone is thrilled with the group that the Tigers have this year and the way that they have battled to sit in first place in the Ivies heading into the final weekend. Freshman Sonia Zhang was just named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association to the national top 25 list. Zhang, who leads the Tigers with a .412 batting average, is bidding to become the first Tiger since 2017 and first freshman in program history, to hit over .400 for a season.

“She’s an unbelievably disciplined kid from how she does her schoolwork too — she had some injuries and things that she had to be in the training room multiple days a week and she’s always doing those things and going above and beyond to make sure her body is in a really good spot to be able to perform,” said Van Ackeren. “She’s often the first kid to arrive at practice. She does drills on her own to warm up, works on her swing. It’s that’s instilled by her family and her parents for sure, and I think that allowed her to adapt to Princeton smoothly. Princeton rewards discipline in a lot of ways.”

Dumais is the same way. And the rest of the team has been accountable, something that Van Ackeren can appreciate. She gathered her players after Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Brown, and assessed their mood. It didn’t look like a first-place team or even a team that had just had a walk-off win a game before. That was trumped by the losses that sandwiched those late-game heroics.

“I don’t know if anyone feels great right now, and I don’t hate that because I think they’re still very motivated to get better,” said Van Ackeren. “I don’t think they’re satisfied with the way that they played and looking at others who maybe didn’t come up with much. I think everyone took a degree of accountability for what happened this weekend, and so that gives you a lot of quiet excitement as a coach.”

Princeton’s senior leadership has set the tone for the season. Cate Bade, Molly Chambers, and Grace Jackson have been pillars for the team through their highs and lows.

“They’ve been doing such a great job with the team and we’ve had to navigate just some tough things throughout the year and they’ve done it so well and they’re not afraid to have tough conversations and tell the truth,” said Van Ackeren. “I’m confident in our leadership within the team to lead well because that’s super key this time of year.”

Sablone appreciates the attitude that she sees in the Tigers as a player. They have the right mindset to navigate the potential pitfalls of a softball season, and have reacted well to challenges throughout the season.

“We’ve definitely got a special group this year,” said Sablone. “We have a really great group of freshmen on our team that that push us a lot athletically and our team is just very, very eager to get after things. It’s like one of the hardest working teams I’ve been on in my time here and it just feels like we’re just super bought into the process and we’re getting after it. That buy-in makes us a very, very selfless team, and that’s something that’s really special to be a part of, just being on a squad where you know that the person in front of you and behind you has your back.”

Princeton is unified in its goal going into the final week of the regular season. The Tigers could seal the top spot and the right to host the Ivy tournament. It’s also possible they could miss the tournament so they can’t slip up again this coming weekend.

“We’re kind of going into these last four games with the mentality that we haven’t earned anything yet,” said Sablone. “We’ve got to go and take it. That’s kind of how we’re seeing it, we haven’t even clinched anything just because of the way everything’s worked out and kind of just reminding ourselves that that we have four games left on the schedule and that’s all we know. We’ve got to play them to the best of our ability and try to get our seniors a couple more games and we have to earn that.”

Sablone saw her teammates making adjustments Sunday for the Brown series finale. Princeton put itself in position a number of times, but left 10 runners on base. Those missed opportunities were a microcosm of the missed opportunity on the weekend. Now there’s less wiggle room for an Ivy League tournament berth, but every chance to reach their season-long goals.

“Every good team needs a wake-up call and this is our chance to find out if we’re going to be a really good team,” said Van Ackeren.