Great Expectations

By Justin Long

“We will go the way Alex goes this year,” says the coach of Alex Chang-Graham ’10.

Ending a season with a loss to Williams is never easy. The Amherst softball team has learned that the hard way the past three years. But with an exceptional senior class—arguably the best in the NESCAC—2010 could mark a return to the team’s glory days.

Two years ago, Amherst entered the final weekend of the regular season needing to defeat Williams three times in order to qualify for the 2008 NESCAC Softball Championship. If upsetting the Ephs for the first time since 2000 was a long shot, sweeping them was virtually impossible.

But when Amherst came from behind to win the first two games of the series, the postseason was suddenly a possibility. The winner of the pivotal third game would continue its season; the loser would not. The Jeffs carried a 5-3 lead into the seventh inning, but Williams scored seven unearned runs—thanks to five Amherst errors—en route to a 10-6 win and a postseason berth. Amherst was devastated.

The Jeffs finished 2008 with a disappointing 14-18 record. “That loss stuck with them,” says Head Coach Sue Everden of her players, “but it drove them to succeed last year.” The team ended last season at 19-8 and ranked among the NESCAC leaders in batting average (.323), runs scored (171), fielding percentage (.944), opponents’ batting average (.255) and earned run average (2.94).    

Despite all this, the end result was just as tough as it was in 2008. The Jeffs combined for nine errors on the final day of the 2009 season and never led the Ephs, who earned wins of 5-3 and 8-4 to once again take Amherst’s spot in the NESCAC Championship. “Last year, we knew we had a better team than Williams,” says Jackie Tyler ’10. “We knew our team was stronger than it was in 2008. It was very difficult to have lost on the last day of the season for the second year in a row.”

The 2009 season capped off a nine-year stretch with no playoff victories. The Jeffs went 140-123-1 during that span and finished with a losing record four times. But Amherst used to be a regional powerhouse. In only its fourth varsity season, in 1998, softball went 31-8 and advanced to the NCAA Regional Championship. The Jeffs won at least 20 games each year from 1997 to 2000, qualifying for the postseason four times.

The 2010 season could resemble those powerhouse days. The key to success will be the senior class. An exceptional outfielder and leadoff hitter, Tyler is one of the best non-pitchers ever to attend Amherst. Everden calls her a “pitcher’s dream” because of her immense range and ability to make difficult catches look easy. She was named to an All-NESCAC Team in each of her first three seasons at Amherst. As a first-year Tyler led the conference in batting average (.513), slugging percentage (.744), on-base percentage (.562) and stolen bases (19).

Tyler’s intangibles are equally impressive. “Jackie has been a leader since day one,” Everden says. “Nobody works harder in practice—it rubs off on her teammates and becomes contagious. She is an extremely thoughtful person. She has a competitive fire, but she’s also selfless—that’s the difference between good leaders and great leaders.”

Coach Everden looks on as Emily Neill ’10 rounds third base last season.

Emily Neill ’10 is a solid middle infielder and is known for being the most clutch hitter on the team. In the past two years, Amherst has won 17 games by three runs or fewer. In those games, Neill batted .412 (21-for-51) with 15 runs batted in and 13 runs scored, recording multiple RBIs five times. Notably, Neill drove in three runs during the 3-1 win over Williams that kept the team’s 2008 postseason hopes alive, including a two-RBI double in the eighth inning.

Neill became the first Amherst player since the 1990s to record 20 RBIs in each of her first three seasons and is among the school’s all-time run producers. Last year she set career highs in batting average (.388), slugging percentage (.537) and fielding percentage (.966). Everden praises Neill’s ability to adapt. “You might get her the first time, but her adjustments are great,” says Everden. “She makes pitchers pay.”

Alex Chang-Graham ’10 has been the team’s ace since 2007 and is one of the NESCAC’s best pitchers. She was named to the All-Conference First Team in 2008 and 2009. She led the NESCAC in earned run average (1.65) as a sophomore and went 15-3 as a junior. Her ERA and opponents’ batting average have decreased each year; her wins and innings pitched have increased.

According to Everden, Chang-Graham is even stronger this year. “Alex is a leader because of her physical presence and consistency. Her control is phenomenal. The only time she gets beat is when she tries to be too perfect. She is a true student of the game and knows how to be a good pitcher. We will go the way Alex goes this year.”

The juniors bring versatility and intangibles. Katie Kervick ’11 will serve as a designated hitter and back-up catcher or second baseman. Sam Presnal ’11 has a necessary left-handed bat and will contribute as a pitcher and first baseman.
Jill Masi ’11 will play outfield and provide another left-handed bat as one of the fastest players on the team. “Katie’s humor keeps everyone loose,” says Everden. “Sam’s maturity and work ethic make everyone around her a better player. Jill is one of the nicest, most thoughtful people I have ever coached. The junior class is so well-liked and respected. They bring to the intangibles we need.”

The Class of 2012 made an immediate impact last year. Carly Dudzik ’12 led Amherst in batting average (.457), runs scored (31), hits (43) and on-base percentage (.514) as the team’s starting shortstop. She earned the program’s first NESCAC Rookie of the Year honor since 2001. First baseman Stephanie Clegg ’12 hit two home runs with a .556 slugging percentage despite missing the first half of the season to play for Amherst’s ice hockey team. Annemarie Iker ’12 started all 27 games and drove in 16 runs as a solid catcher. Joni Hirsch ’12 walked on to the team as an outfielder and brings an essential left-handed bat to the lineup.

The new first-years could be just as good. Theresa Kelley ’13 throws exceptionally hard with the potential to be another ace in the pitching rotation. Her role as a legitimate No. 2 pitcher will take significant pressure off Chang-Graham. Megan Kepnach ’13 is a versatile player with a strong arm. Reilly Horan ’13 will be reunited with Dudzik—her former teammate at Darien (Conn.) High School—on the left side of the infield as a promising third baseman. Christina Anderson ’13 will add depth to the pitching rotation and first base.

The combination of talent, chemistry and determination could return Amherst to prominence. “I’m excited because I think we can do what it takes to be successful throughout the season,” Everden says. “Last year we weren’t consistent enough in NESCAC play, and sometimes we broke down fundamentally. The seasoned players have grown from tough experiences, and the younger players have such a loose attitude. There is a wonderful balance among the classes.”

Another plus is the cohesiveness between Everden and Assistant Coach Maggie Feix, who begins her third season with Amherst. “Maggie is a tremendous coach and a wonderful human being,” Everden says. “She brings a sense of urgency and purpose. The enthusiasm in the coaching staff is contagious—Maggie and I are a great combination. The comfort level between us extends to the players and breeds real team chemistry.”

The players are as optimistic as Everden is. Neill has high expectations. Chang-Graham has confidence in the bullpen. Dudzik thinks a strong batting lineup could make Amherst one of the best teams in the NESCAC. Tyler knows that the team still needs to work on its defense, but she has high hopes. “I feel very confident that we will make the playoffs this year,” Tyler says. “This is a very good team. Hopefully, we won’t have to count on a few late-season wins.”

Amherst has great potential, but Everden has learned not to look ahead. “I don’t know if we’ll make the postseason,” she says. “We have a legitimate chance to win every time we go on the field, if we play to our potential. There is great chemistry. Everything is in place. We just have to play it out.”

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04