May 29, 2024

After PU Softball Earns 1st NCAA Victory Since 2005, Tigers Confident of Future Success on National Stage

SO GOOD: Princeton University softball player Sonia Zhang takes a cut in a game this spring. Freshman infielder Zhang starred as Princeton went 1-2 in the NCAA regional in Lafayette, La. earlier this month posting a 4-2 win over Ole Miss on May 18 to earn its first win in the national tournament since 2005. The Tigers finished the season with a 30-18 record. (Photo by Steven Wojtowicz)

By Bill Alden

As the Princeton University softball team prepared to head to the NCAA regional in Lafayette, La. earlier this month, the squad’s veterans imparted some wisdom gained from their experience at the 2022 national tournament.

“It was good to have a bunch of perspectives from coaches to the juniors and seniors,” said Princeton head coach Lisa Van Ackeren.

“Everybody experienced it a little differently and to just share as much as we could. Nothing can quite prepare you to set foot on the field. Meg Harrington said when we were talking with the pitchers and she was like it is the first time you actually feel you are on a stage when you are on the field.”

Initially, the Tigers stumbled on the national stage, falling 8-0 to host Louisiana on May 17 to open the double-elimination competition.

“We are not going down there to have fun and get a good experience, yeah we are going to have that but it was actually being there to compete and treating it as a business trip,” said Van Ackeren. “It is making sure we are in a position where we believe we can make noise and believe we can win. The first day was getting settled, it didn’t go the way we wanted. No one was happy that night, no one was happy with how we performed.”

Princeton was very happy with how it performed the next day as it topped Mississippi 4-2 for the program’s first win in the NCAA tournament since 2005. Hours later, the Tigers gave Louisiana a battle in an elimination game, ultimately falling 2-1 in eight innings to end the spring with a 30-18 record.

In the win over Ole Miss, freshman pitcher Cassidy Shaw came up big, hurling five shutout innings with eight strikeouts, one walk, and yielding just three hits.

“Cassidy was phenomenal, I can’t say enough good things about her,” said Van Ackeren. “Literally the first pitch she threw was a strike. That says everything. It is so difficult to be calm enough to just be focused on what your job is. She had a phenomenal, phenomenal game versus Ole Miss.”

As for the Tiger offense, sophomore catcher Julia Dumais went 2-for-3 with two RBIs while freshman third baseman Sonia Zhang was 2-for-4 with one run and two RBIs to lead the way.

“Julia has just done a great job; I think she did a better job this year of understanding that it is not going to be perfect that I can still have a great game even if I don’t have the at-bat that I want early on,” said Van Ackeren of Dumais, who hit .308 this spring while Zhang posted a team-high .388 batting average.

“I think her role as a catcher too helps with that; to be involved with every play you have to move on. Sonia has been so steady. Even on her bad weekends somehow she is on base. She was great, being a freshman in the leadoff spot in some really big moments. She was just so steady and gritty. She is really a tough nut. She just finds a way to get it done. I am really proud of her.”

Getting it done against Ole Miss was a breakthrough moment for the Tiger program.

“It was emotional, the belief that you can do it and actually doing it is game changing for the seniors in our program who did so much for this team,” said Van Ackeren. “They put the program on a different step than we have been in the past. For the underclassmen to do that and to have that moment and it is like we know we are good. We know we can compete against an SEC team on the biggest stage. It is like, yes, we can do this. The future is really bright because belief is hard to teach so you take that and you know it can happen. It is going to be pretty cool.”

In the rematch against host Louisiana, Princeton fell behind 1-0 in the top of the third inning but then knotted the game on an RBI single by Zhang in the bottom of the frame. Neither team scored again until the Ragin’ Cajuns pushed across the winning run in the bottom of the eighth.

Sophomore star relief pitcher Brielle Wright kept the Tigers in the game as she made her first start of the season. She had two stints in the circle in the contest, going 4 1/3 innings and allowing an unearned run on five hits and two walks. Wright returned to the game to get the final out of the sixth and threw the last two innings as the eventual winning run scored after a leadoff triple inside the right-field line with a sacrifice fly.

“We literally left it all on the field, everybody gave their absolute heart to that game and the whole day,” said Van Ackeren, reflecting on the finale. “We never doubted that we were going to win that game. I think we were shocked when we didn’t. It made us a really dangerous team against a very good offense. They score runs, that is how they have won games this year. Brielle was the only one who didn’t see Louisiana on Friday and there were a lot of lefties in their lineup. She got her first start of the year in the biggest game of her career. Our defense was phenomenal. It was everybody pulling in one direction. That was really, really cool and I think we got a lot of fans from Louisiana.”

In making new fans, the Tigers showed that they could compete with anybody.

“It felt good to have built a team that kept getting better all the way throughout the year, that is deeply satisfying,” said Van Ackeren. “Also we felt really strongly that we were a great representation of the Ivy League. There are a lot of people who just want to talk about the academic experience of our kids and don’t give them the respect for the type of athletes that they are. We were able to change that narrative. They didn’t focus so much on just the academic experience. They focused on the competitiveness of our team, the heart and resilience, the way that we played together, and our energy. I felt really good about that.”

Van Ackeren feels really good about what she got from her senior group of shortstop Grace Jackson, outfielder Cate Bade, infielder Caitlin Bish, and pitcher Molly Chambers.

“They have been through a lot; they all started their careers during COVID and they didn’t have a meaningful freshman year,” said Van Ackeren. “I said at the last time we were together as a group that their legacy on our program is that they played their role to the best of their ability, no matter what it was. It didn’t matter if you were a pinch runner, a back-up, a cheerleader, or a starter. None of that mattered to them, they wanted to contribute and took a lot of pride in contributing to the team in whatever way they could.”

With such returning stars as Shaw, Dumais, Zhang, Wright, Harrington, Lauren Sablone, Sophia Marsalo, and Allison Ha, the Tigers are a team on the rise that is determined to make an even greater impact on the national stage.

“We have a lot coming back, I think how the season ended has instilled so much possibility in the coming year,” said Van Ackeren. “We had a great year, but I think the cap on us has been blown off of what they can do playing for a good team that expects to win. In the offseason, it feels good knowing that you are coming back to a winning culture and a winning program. That is always a good thing.”