MEDFORD – The Tufts University softball team starts a new era in Florida this weekend as interim head coach Lauren Ebstein leads the Jumbos into the 2019 season.
|Kristi Van Meter's 1.09 era last spring ranked 10th in Division III.|
Ebstein takes over for Cheryl Milligan, who directed the Jumbos to three consecutive NCAA Championships from 2013-15 and stepped down as head coach in November. A 2007 Tufts graduate who pitched for the Jumbos, Ebstein has been on the coaching staff at Tufts since 2014 and helped the Jumbos win two of their three national championships in 2014 and 2015.
Though there are only four seniors on the roster off 22 players, the Jumbos have a young group with experience returning this spring. All-Conference and All-Region selections Raven Fournier and Samantha Siciliano graduated, but there's plenty in place for Tufts to challenge for a New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) title.
"We hope to be playing our best softball in May and not in March," Coach Ebstein said. "We need to understand that the season is a process. We'll learn a lot in Florida where a lot of people will play, and we have a challenging weekday schedule which will help us."
Tufts, who is receiving votes in the National Fast-pitch Coaches Association poll after finishing as NCAA Regional finalists last season, will open its campaign against defending NESCAC West Division champ and NCAA qualifier Amherst College. The Jumbos will also play #4 St. Thomas (Minn.), #12 Rowan and #23 Wisconsin-Eau Claire during their week in Florida. Games against fifth-ranked MIT and #10 Williams are also on the schedule.
Pitching should be a strength, as the Jumbos return two hurlers who had excellent freshman seasons in 2018. Kristi Van Meter was the conference Rookie of the Year and first team selection whose 1.09 earned run averaged was 10th-best in Division III. She finished 15-5 with a 4.61 hits per nine innings mark that was also top 20 nationally. Classmate Kristina Haghdan's 1.43 era was top 30 in the NCAA D3 statistics and she finished 13-4. Those were the top two era's in NESCAC for 2018.
The Jumbos have plenty of options to add depth in the circle. Juniors Gillian O'Connor and Allison Tilton have both seen innings in the last two seasons. Sophomore Cassie Cancemi had the top strikeouts per seven innings mark (8.17) on the team in limited duty last season. Nicole Russo is a promising freshman.
The infield is pretty well set with junior Casey Maggiore at first, sophomore Emma Della Vople (31 games as a freshman) at second, sophomore Mia Steinberg (.323 in '18) at short and junior Jamie Stevens (28 run last spring) at third. Senior Kristen Caporelli, who has versatility and offensive ability, will certainly play a role whether it's in the infield or outfield. Her 24 rbis are the top returning number on the team. Senior Christian Cain and freshman Vanessa Venkataraman are the back-ups in the middle infield.
The departure of Fournier and classmate Sarah Finnigan behind the plate opens up opportunity for several Jumbos to win the role. Sophomore Sofia Molina, senior Kelsey Dion, Cain and freshman Alexis Aboulafia are all under consideration. Molina hit .311 in 21 games as a freshman last year and Dion finished with a .364 mark.
The outfield also features plenty of options, and whoever hits could see the most time. Junior Maggie Lebinski hit .407 and stole 10 bases before a late-season injury. Junior Emily Serata and sophomores Edie Huling and Reegan Coleman started NCAA games a year ago and should benefit from the year of experience. Senior Isabel Smokelin and junior Maria Ostapovich also factor into the equation.
With 10 NESCAC titles, Tufts has the most out of any team in the conference. However, it's been since 2015 that the Jumbos have won one and they are eager to change that. The fact that the East Division winner will host the conference tournament this spring is a bonus.
"We want to get back to hosting NESCAC's and winning a conference title," Coach Ebstein said. "It's been a while. On top of that we'd like to make a run in NCAA's too. Though we're a young team, the potential is definitely there."