Culture Change

Contact: Justin Long

I. THE SEASON

Last September, the Amherst College softball coaching staff detected an attitudinal shift as the Lord Jeffs prepared for the 2012 season. Despite six of the 12 players on the roster having never played a collegiate game, one thing was very clear to the coaches: this could be a special group.

It was going to take a special group to help Amherst rebound from the 2011 season, during which the Lord Jeffs battled injuries, struggled to field a team, posted a 14-16 record and missed out the postseason for a fifth consecutive year.

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For Amherst to be successful in 2012, its first-years
were going to have to play a big role.

So, what was going to make 2012 any different? In addition to having a small roster (although, a 12-player team felt like a luxury after 2011), the team’s only senior was attempting to come back from a serious injury that forced her to miss the entire 2011 season. The six returning players were extremely talented, but the newcomers were going to have to play whether they were ready or not. “It was critical that the first-years understood they needed to play a big role for us,” head coach Sue Everden says.

The coaches may have thought they had a special group, but to others the 2012 season was looking like a gigantic question mark. But because there were no expectations, Amherst’s 2-0 start was exciting. The team’s 4-0 record also sounded promising, as did 6-0, 8-0 and 10-0. Before anyone could figure out what was going on, the Lord Jeffs were flying home from Florida at 12-0, the best start in program history.

All of a sudden, the softball team was the talk of the athletic department. Everyone had questions. Who are those two freshmen hitting above .400? (That would be Donna Leet ’15 and Idalia Friedson ’15.) Is Amherst’s ERA seriously 1.00? (Sure is.) Are they really that good?

It was too early to know the answer to that last question, but there was clearly a new level of excitement when Amherst took the field for its first home games of the season, a doubleheader with WPI on Mar. 28. Any skepticism that still existed quickly disappeared with a 5-0 Amherst win in the opener, courtesy of 15 strikeouts by Theresa Kelley ’13 and 12 hits by the offense. When Amherst won the nightcap on a walk-off, it was clear the Jeffs were for real.

Amherst’s win streak was impressive, but at that point in the season it was irrelevant. The Jeffs were preparing to take on Williams in a three-game NESCAC West series, and for the past few years the Ephs didn’t care what Amherst’s record was. In fact, they had ended Amherst’s season and crushed its playoff hopes in five consecutive years (2007-11), even when the Jeffs were favored. Somehow, Williams always found a way to get the last laugh.

So, when the undefeated Jeffs were trailing the 6-8 Ephs by a score of 2-1 in the sixth inning of the series opener, it seemed like nothing had changed. But Amherst’s freshmen didn’t know any better. Their first contribution to the rivalry? A combined 7-for-14 showing at the plate, highlighted by a Friedson three-run homer that gave the Jeffs the lead for good.

That’s pretty much how the entire Williams series went. The second game was scoreless until Amherst broke through with six runs in the bottom of the fifth inning. In the third game the Ephs held a 6-3 lead in the seventh inning, but the Jeffs treated their fans to another walk-off win after Carolyn Miller ’14 delivered a two-RBI single. It was the first time since 1998 Amherst was able to sweep its rival.

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Sweeping Williams was a pivotal point of the season.

Everden knew the Williams sweep was a pivotal moment in the season. “That was one event that really propelled this team forward. Especially after the walk-off win, they believed they could stay in the moment and excel.”

Amherst won its next four games by a combined 49-6 and was the only undefeated team remaining in Division III (21-0), but the run finally came to an end when they split a doubleheader with regional powerhouse Keene State. “I didn’t think we would go 36-0, so I wanted to see how we reacted to losing,” Everden says. “They absorbed the loss with the attitude you’d hope for—they basically said, ‘This is why we lost, and this is what we have to do better.’”

Everden noticed a greater degree of urgency in her players following that loss. The Jeffs responded with a nine-game winning streak and dominated the NESCAC West, sweeping Hamilton and Wesleyan before taking two of three from Middlebury, a team that swept the Jeffs in 2011. For the first time in program history, Amherst earned the NESCAC’s top seed and the right to host the conference tournament.

The Jeffs came from behind to defeat Bowdoin in extra innings of the NESCAC’s opening round, but their title hopes were abruptly dashed with one-run losses to Tufts and Middlebury the next day. After earning a spot in the NCAA Championship for the first time since 1999, Amherst alternated wins and losses until ending its season with a 4-1 setback to top-seeded Cortland.

Winning two NCAA tournament games with six first-years was an incredible accomplishment, but by that time the Jeffs had already made their point. They swept Williams and cruised through the NESCAC West. They beat Keene State, a team that advanced to the regional finals. Their seven hits against national powerhouse Tufts were the most by any team that played the Jumbos in the postseason. The evidence was there—their 22-0 start wasn’t a fluke, and neither was their NCAA bid. They were a legitimate contender.

II. THE FUTURE

So, how did a 14-16 team turn into a 36-6 team in one year? The obvious answer is that in 2011 the Jeffs were outscored by a 122-112 margin—this year they turned the tables and outscored their opponents, 259-96. Any time you can change your run differential from -10 to +163 in one season, you can expect to see a few more W’s on the schedule.

Amherst improved in virtually every statistical category. Take a look at a comparison between some key stats from 2011 and 2012:

Statistic 2011 2012
Batting Average .264 .324
Doubles 25 61
Home Runs 12 17
Slugging Percentage .360 .446
Stolen Bases 31 70
Earned Run Average 2.88 1.86
Opponents' Batting Average .263 .208
Strikeouts (Pitching) 187 287
Fielding Percentage .945 .959

Such drastic improvements should take years to unfold, not months. Part of the reason Amherst was able to accomplish this in one year is that the team got contributions from top to bottom. In 2011, three players hit .300 or better. In 2012, that number jumped to eight. The program’s single-season hits record had been 46, but four players reached that mark this year.

Leet led the team in hits (58) and set a new single-season RBI record with 18 games still to play. Kaitlin Silkowitz ’14 scored more runs than any player in school history (46). Miller and Friedson each hit four home runs. Kelley struck out 186 batters and walked only 17. Kelsey Ayers '15 played like a senior behind the plate. Carly Dudzik '12 provided invaluable leadership to a team that desperately needed it. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Whoever was at the plate or in the circle, there was always a feeling that the right person was in the spotlight. It seemed like Amherst didn’t have a weak link. As a result, the Jeffs thrived in big moments. They had 11 come-from-behind wins, won eight games when trailing after five innings, treated their fans to six walk-off victories and were 23-0 on the road. “You can learn a lot from losing, but they were also able to learn from the walk-offs and the comebacks,” Everden says. “They had the ability to stay in the moment—each half inning, each lift, each practice. It became their theme.”

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Amherst had a lot to celebrate in 2012.

Throughout all of the success, what stood out more than Amherst’s talent was how much the players genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. From the pre-game dancing to the post-game celebrations, it was clear they were having fun. “They felt a sense of urgency to excel, yet they remained good teammates,” says Everden. “They were constantly compassionate toward each other while pushing each other in a healthy way.”

Simply put, Everden was dealing with a new team in every sense. “Everything just felt different—the leadership, the conditioning, the work ethic, the level of commitment, the accountability. They weren’t satisfied to simply go through the motions. We told the upperclassmen they were in charge of changing the culture in the offseason, and they did a great job.”

There are countless reasons to believe Amherst could maintain this level of success for years to come. Everden says assistant coach Whitney Mollica Goldstein is hands down one of the best coaches in the country. Eleven players are returning next year, including the entire pitching staff. The team has NCAA and NESCAC postseason experience. Amherst’s roster will be larger than it has been in years, which will create new options and more specialized roles.

What’s not to like?

Amherst’s coaches are giddy when they talk about their incoming freshmen. They smile and laugh as they discuss the possibilities moving forward. For them, the 2013 season can’t come soon enough. “We knew we’d win more games this year, but we didn’t know it could go this far in the other direction,” Everden says. “Nobody could have anticipated that. Now, it’s important that everyone sees what their role is. The future of the program couldn’t be brighter.”

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Program Records
Wins in a season (36)
Best start to a season (22-0)
Longest winning streak (22)

Miscellaneous
First playoff berth since 2006
First-ever #1 seed in NESCAC Championship
First-ever win in NESCAC Championship play
First NCAA tournament appearance since 1999
First appearance in NFCA national rankings since 2000
10th best single-season improvement in NCAA DIII history (14-16 to 36-6)

NCAA Regional Championship Video Highlights

Photo Galleries * Videos