May 15, 2024

Tiger Softball Shows Resolve, Special Team Chemistry As it Wins Ivy Tourney, Will Face Louisiana in NCAAs

SOMETHING TO SHOUT ABOUT: Members of the Princeton University softball team show their joy as they greet Allison Ha after she hit a homer against Cornell in a regular season game on May 4. Last Saturday, the Tigers had a lot to celebrate as they edged Harvard 1-0 in a winner-take-all contest in the final round of the double-elimination Ivy League Tournament and earned the league’s automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA tournament. Princeton, now 29-16, will head south to the Louisiana Regional in Lafayette, La., where it will face host Louisiana on May 17 in the opener of the double-elimination competition. The two other teams at the site are Ole Miss and Baylor. (Photo by Steven Wojtowicz)

By Bill Alden

It was a blast that gave the Princeton University softball team a huge lift as it headed into the Ivy League Tournament last week.

With Princeton trailing Cornell in the bottom of the seventh inning in its regular season finale on May 4, Lauren Sablone slammed a three-run walk-off homer that gave the Tigers a 5-4 win. In the wake of the triumph Princeton earned the top seed in the Ivy tournament and the right to host the double elimination competition at the friendly confines of Strubing Field.

“That was one of the top three sports moments I have been a part of, it was unbelievable, it was electric,” said Princeton head coach Lisa Van Ackeren. “There is genuine belief that anything can happen and when you have a moment like that you remember what sports are all about. Nobody knows who is supposed to win and really anything can happen on any given day. I think that gave our team a huge boost of momentum going into the tournament.”

Good things kept happening for the Tigers as they topped Dartmouth 4-0 on Wednesday to open the tourney and head to the winner’s bracket. A day later, Princeton topped Harvard to 3-1 to earn a spot in the final round.

On Saturday, the Tigers fell 6-1 to the Crimson to set up a winner-take-all finale for the title and the league’s automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA tournament. Riding the pitching of starter Cassidy Shaw and reliever Brielle Wright, Princeton edged the Crimson 1-0 to win the crown, its second league title in the last three years.

Princeton, now 29-16, will head south to the Louisiana Regional in Lafayette, La. where it will face host and 13th-seeded Louisiana (42-17) on May 17 in the opener of the double-elimination competition. The two other teams at the site are Ole Miss and Baylor. The NCAA tournament appearance is Princeton’s 12th overall and first since 2022.

The Tigers will be looking to get the kind of start in Louisiana they got against Dartmouth as junior righty Meghan Harrington hurled a three-hit shutout against the Big Green with three strikeouts on no walks.

“It was cool because we faced the Ivy League Pitcher of the year in Jensin Hall,” said Van Ackeren. “Meg Harrington was phenomenal, she has just been working hard all year. The great part about her is that she could be phenomenal on any given day but she has just had such a growth mentality that each outing is going to make her a little better. She is really great at staying in the moment and competing. She gave our team a chance to win.”

In a harbinger of things to come, freshman Karis Ford hit a homer in the win. She ended up going 5-for-10 in the tourney and won Most Outstanding Player honors.

“She had a monster weekend, that is totally what she is capable of,” said Van Ackeren. “She was the most valuable player and it was well deserved, well-earned. Our team watches her every day and every time Karis gets a big hit, we are so happy for her and also not surprised at all.”

Princeton was not surprised to see nemesis Harvard in final round as the rivals advanced to the same stage in the 2023 Ivy tourney with Crimson prevailing in a winner-take-all finale.

While the Tigers fell 6-1 to Harvard to set up the if-necessary showdown, they weren’t suffering a case of déjà vu.

“We dropped the first game, we didn’t have our best stuff,” said Van Ackeren. “Their pitchers did a great job for them this weekend grinding and giving their offense a chance to do their thing. Our goal was to stay in the moment so we were prepared to quickly move on. It is what it is. We are on equal footing now and the goal is still within reach, so the quicker we can move on the better off we are going to be. They really did move on from that. We didn’t have our best game offensively in game two, but we did what we needed to do to win.”

Once again, Princeton got strong pitching in the 1-0 win in the seeing game as a freshman starter Shaw went six innings, giving up just four hits, and sophomore reliever Wright got the save with a one-two-three seventh inning.

“I think the resolve that we showed in Game 2 was cool,” said Van Ackeren. “Cassidy had one of the best games of her career and then Brielle came in to close. When you see Brielle take the field in the seventh and we have a one-run lead, we know it is over. That is the feeling because she is so dominant.”

Having gone through a roller coaster Ivy campaign which saw Princeton tie Harvard and Yale for first place as the trio each had 14-7 league marks, Van Ackeren expected drama last weekend.

“The tournament went about as I expected, it was just chaos and a lot of really good battles,” said Van Ackeren. “You need to be playing your best at the end.”

In surviving that chaos, the Tigers utilized their special team chemistry.

“We turned toward each other, I think a lot of teams turn external,” said Van Ackeren. “You can blame the umpires, you can blame tradition, or whatever. We do a really good job of turning toward the inner circle. They really love each other. It is so cool when you have moments and there is genuine care on this team for the people in that circle, above and beyond what they do as athletes.”

Playing in Lafayette, La., to open NCAA action figures to be a cool experience for Princeton.

“It will be an awesome site, it is a place none of us have played in, even travel ball,” said Van Ackeren, whose team played at Fayetteville, Ark., in his last NCAA appearance in 2022. “It is such a cool opportunity to get to go to a place where you haven’t played before or been before.”

The Tigers have some recent history with 3rd-seeded Louisiana (42-17), having lost 8-3 to the Ragin’ Cajuns in March 2023 in a tournament hosted by the University of Texas.

“We play tough competition early on, so that we are not fazed by seeing a Power 5 name or a name brand,” said Van Ackeren, noting that Princeton softball’s first-ever regional in 1994 was played at Lafayette and that the Tigers won their first regional game at that site with a victory over McNeese State. “We have got three big name brands, which is great. We are prepared for that. Louisiana will be first. They are tough, they are scrappy, they are relentless. They have great pitching and great hitting.”

In the view of Van Ackeren, the experience of playing at Arkansas in the 2022 NCAA tournament should help the Tigers not be fazed when they compete this weekend in Lafayette.

“Our upperclassmen have been to a regional, we were in a really cool environment at Arkansas,” said Van Ackeren. “It was intense and amazing, they love their softball too. Our upperclassmen need to lead the way emotionally. We are in this big environment but the game is still the same. In 2022 we didn’t have anyone with that experience. We have that experience in our program now. I think that will really help us stay grounded. It is loud and intense and fast but the game is still the same. If we focus on us, do what we do and enjoy it, I think we will put ourselves in a really good spot. The game doesn’t know who is supposed to win. Anything can happen.”

Just like when Sablone blasted her homer against Cornell.