The most important stretch of the season has arrived for the Yale softball team, which travels this weekend to Harvard for the first four divisional matchups of 2017.
After a respectable start to conference play, the Bulldogs (10–21, 4–4 Ivy) find themselves only one game out of first place in the North Division behind a red-hot Dartmouth (6–21–1, 5–3) squad. The Crimson (12–14, 3–5), meanwhile, sits just a game behind the Elis, creating a logjam in the standings with no clear frontrunner. The two Yale doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday will go a long way in determining which North Division squad will advance to the Ancient Eight championship.
“Headed into divisional series this weekend, [the standings are] something that we try not to have on our minds too much,” pitcher Francesca Casalino ’18 said. “We all had similar results against the South Division. … I wouldn’t say it worries us too much. We try to take it game-by-game, day-by-day.”
Last weekend’s crossdivisional games did little to sort out the deadlock in the North. Yale took on Penn and Columbia in New Haven, hoping to gain enough conference wins to expand its one-game lead over Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown. That did not come to pass, as the Bulldogs dropped both games to Penn by 4–1 and 8–6 finals, undone in the latter game by an ugly fourth inning that saw three Eli errors and six Quaker runs.
However, Yale tightened the screws in its second series against the Lions, winning both games by impressive 7–2 and 12–2 margins. The Crimson and Bears also went 2–2 on the weekend, remaining a game behind the Bulldogs, but the Big Green — which entered the weekend with just two wins in 24 games — exploded to sweep Cornell and South Division-leader Princeton to jump into first place.
Though Yale relinquished its lead in the North, the past four games have been a bright spot for a team that has struggled offensively this year. Through its first 27 games, Yale scored more than five runs on just four occasions. It has now doubled that mark, tallying 12 in both the final game against Columbia and in Tuesday’s win over Quinnipiac. The Elis now rank third in the Ivy League in batting average, at 0.295, and second in home runs with six in conference games.
The Bulldogs’ pitching remains strong as well, notwithstanding a surprising 11-run allowance against the Bobcats. Yale’s duo of Casalino and lefty Terra Jerpbak ’19 gave up just two runs each in their complete-game wins against Columbia, and the Elis’ four-pitcher staff has recorded a league-best 37 strikeouts and boasts a 3.37 earned run average, good for second in the Ivy League.
“We’re focusing on throwing our best pitching and making them hit it,” Jerpbak said. “We’re throwing at corners, trying to keep it not too far on the plate. All four of us have individual strengths that make us great as a staff, and our coaches do a great job of mixing it up to keep their hitters off balance.”
Yale’s hurlers will square off against a Harvard lineup that has struggled at the plate in the past several weeks. Against conference opponents, the Crimson ranks last in hits, last in home runs, sixth in runs batted in and seventh in slugging percentage. However, one major threat in the Crimson lineup is infielder Rhianna Rich, who has powered Harvard all year, notching 40 hits — including three triples — en route to an astonishing 0.490 on base percentage. If the Bulldogs do not play tight defense, Rich’s speed on the base paths will cause them trouble all weekend long.
Harvard’s pitching will threaten to extinguish the newly fiery Yale offense. Harvard’s top three pitchers — Sarah Smith, Kathleen Duncan and Taylor Cabe — rank third, fourth and fifth in the Ivy League in earned run average and have kept batters in check all season. Duncan has thrown three complete games in 2017, and her combined stamina and efficiency will prove challenging for a Yale offense that only managed five runs in four games against Harvard last season.
To overcome the Crimson trio, Shelby Kennedy ’19 must continue the monster season she has had so far. Kennedy leads the Bulldogs in runs, hits and stolen bases and has provided much of Yale’s offensive spark lately, scoring six runs in the Elis’ last four games.
“This season I have really focused on relaxing in the box and finding the balance between staying aggressive and selective,” Kennedy said. “I have been staying within myself and staying in the role that the teams needs me from me. The team has really taken what we have been working on in practice and applying it to games. We have been adjusting quickly and playing loose which is when we play the best.”
The Elis will play the Crimson at 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday at Harvard’s Soldiers Field.