The Journey: CCSU Softball

Three years ago when I first came to Central Connecticut and heard about the student run newspaper, The Recorder, I didn’t know what to do. I was a new journalism major and knew I had to right, but was scared. I have always loved sports, but writing wasn’t really my thing until I decided to give journalism a shot. I could finally write about topics that interested me and I enjoyed it.

In the spring of 2011 I emailed Brittany Burke, the sports editor of The Recorder at the time and asked if I could write about baseball, my pastime. She told me that there was someone already who did baseball (Kenny Barto), but I could do softball. The memories of the one high school softball game I ever went to began to run through my head. It was the worst, most boring game I had ever seen and didn’t think college softball would be that great either.

I talked to the sports information department and they set me up with an interview with head coach Jeff Franquet one day for a preview of the 2011 season. I was nervous, had no idea what to ask him and I’m sure I don’t want to read that story ever again. I did a couple stories for the paper throughout the season and even did a feature on Kat Knowles, a senior catcher from Washington. That was a cool story, because I also got to take pictures on the field during senior day for my photojournalism class.

In 2012 I was ready for the season to start. I got some stories under my belt and had successfully established CCSU softball as my beat. In addition to writing the season preview, I met with coach Franquet every Monday in his office and we talked about the past weekends games. I had to do this because I worked all weekend and could rarely make it to the games. Not an ideal situation for a journalist writing timely stories, but I made it work. I would leave the office and work on the story, usually mine being one of the last edited and placed on the page during Monday night layout.

Last season I also wrote a feature on Laura Messina. If you follow any part of the program you should know that name by now, but I wrote the story first. I met her in one of the study rooms in the athletes study hall and talked to her for 20 minutes or so about her high school career and what it meant to be breaking records already as a freshman. From that day forward I knew she didn’t care about setting school records unless it meant that the team was winning. 2012 was a great team, but injuries in the middle of the season derailed the hopes of making the conference tournament, even though another single-season win record was broken.

This year felt like the year from the very beginning. Franquet finally had a solid core of his players and the last three years he had been preaching “get better everyday” and “buy into the system” and that’s exactly what happened. From the opening trip to Florida when the team went 2-3 against some very tough opponents to the 12-game winning streak they went on to begin Northeast Conference play, the Blue Devils knew they were the best team in the conference and that confidence carried them all the way to the first NEC title in program history.

I wrote my stories and I even made it to a few weekend games where I was allowed to go on the field after the game and do some interviews like a real reporter. 2013 was special for me as well.

I would have loved to go to Moon Township, Penn. for the tournament, but I couldn’t, I had to work on Saturday. So instead, I watched the game live on NECFrontRow.com on my phone while I cashed people out at Lowe’s. NEC Front Row is probably the best streaming video service in college sports in the country and they came through huge for me this past weekend.

At 4:31 a.m. on Sunday morning I received a text message from coach Franquet, “10pm tonight is the ncaa selection show. We will all be in the coaches suite [at] 915. Please come by and enjoy the celebration.”

Of course I accepted the invition and got this in return, “You are a part of this journey”

I fell in love with this team and almost felt like a part of them. If they won, I was happy, if they lost, it affected my mood (for a short time). It was just awesome to watch and to be acknowledged like that by the coach meant a lot to me. I drove from East Hampton to New Britain just to be a part of the celebration; it was a once in a lifetime event and something I will always remember.

A little after 10 p.m. this image showed up on the television and the team erupted…http://instagram.com/p/ZPFuBvrcLu/

CCSU will travel to LSU for the Baton Rouge regional this weekend.

So, I would like to thank Kenny Barto for being the baseball writer in 2011 and forcing me to write softball and Brittany Burke for suggesting I try writing a softball story. The last three years covering this team has meant so much to me and made my entire CCSU career worth while.

 

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Springer Powers Central to First Tourney Final

The Blue Devils have shown all year that their lineup can hit from top to bottom and if one person struggles, someone else will pick them up and that’s just what Nicole Springer did today.

The senior third baseman broke a 3-3 tie in the fifth inning with her second home run of the day en route to a 5-4 victory and giving CCSU its first Northeast Conference tournament finals appearance in history.

Springer said in her post game interview on NEC Front Row that she was “swinging out of her shoes.”

With Arielle Bruno and Kat Malcolm struggling today, Springer picked up the slack early and often. In the first inning, with two outs and the bases empty, Springer lined her first long ball of the day out to right field. Kelsey Barlow walked and Tessa Brown singled down the left field line to put two more runners on base before the super freshman Evie Rentzel could drive in another. She dropped a bloop single into center and Barlow scored from second.

For the second straight game, CCSU scored two runs in the first and Laura Messina came back in the second to strike out the side.

Brittany Ernst, who had a rough first game, reached base to lead off the second with a bunt right in front of the plate. She moved to second and then third on sacrifice hits, then Springer came to the plate. She singled to center field for her second two-out RBI hit of the day and CCSU led 3-0 after two innings.

LIU came back in the third to tie the game when their top hitter, Lauren Morizi drove in Ariana Lopez who reached on an error when Bruno couldn’t get the ball out of her glove at second. Nichole Toven followed with a single of her own to left allowing Morizi to score; Toven reached second on a throwing error. Nicole Archer singled home Toven to tie the game. All of the runs scored in the game up to this point were scored with two outs.

Springer’s second home run came leading off the fifth. This was her 10th of the year, tying her own single-season record and 20 for her career.

Brown single to left, but was retired at second when Rentzel grounded out 4-6. Eileen Purcell came up and lined a double down the left field line scoring Rentzel for what would be the winning run.

The Blackbirds got one back in the sixth when Whitney West drove in Lopez, but failed to score anymore.

Messina retired the side in order in the seventh to send the Blue devils to their first ever NEC championship game. Central is now 2-2 in tournament games overall.

Monmouth defeated Robert Morris in the second game of the day and the first elimination game 5-2. Monmouth then had to play LIU for a spot in the finals vs. CCSU. The rain began falling and the game was called in the top of the second. Play will resume tomorrow at noon and the championship game will be played at 2:30 p.m.

LIU-Brooklyn vs. CCSU tourney preview

Before the Blue Devils take on the LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds at 10:30 a.m. lets take a look at the matchup.

Back on March 24, the first weekend of Northeast Conference play, the Blue Devils opened with their New York City trip. Two against Wagner College and two more vs. LIU.

Long Island won the NEC tournament last year and is always a tough opponent.

When I talked to coach Jeff Franquet last week, he told me that even though the Blackbirds are the fourth seed and were swept by Central in the beginning of the season, they are always tough at the end and you can’t compare Friday’s team with the one back in March.

LIU plays probably the toughest non-conference schedule in the league which included three nationally ranked teams and a number of others from big conferences such as the Big East, ACC, Big Ten and SEC. And just as I heard on the NEC Front Row broadcast today, LIU takes a little while to “learn how to win again” once they begin their conference schedule, but the top tier teams prepare them for tournament play.

In the first game of the double-header back on March 24, CCSU used seven runs in the top of the sixth to win the game 9-1 after the mercy rule was applied. The offense was led by Arielle Bruno who had four RBIs including a 3-run home run off of Cassie Vondrak, who currently holds a 13-20 record with a 4.08 ERA. She pitched LIU to their game one victory on Thursday. The Blackbirds have possibly one other pitcher they could use vs. CCSU in Nicole Archer, but it’s unlikely and we will most likely see Vondrak vs. Messina in this winners bracket game.

Archer pitched six innings in the second game a month and a half ago, but came in in the second after Heather White gave up home runs to Bruno and Tessa Brown in the first inning. CCSU went on to win that one 5-0.

In the two games, Messina pitched 13 innings, struck out 12 batters and gave up one run. Look for the sophomore to be ready to go today.

Both teams can hit the ball deep, so I look for at least one home run on the day and Lauren Morizi of LIU has one of the top batting averages in the league (.396), but Messina will come right after her and the rest of the order.

The Blue Devils offense is rolling and conference Player of the Year Kat Malcolm leads the charge. With a home run yesterday and three RBIs, the center fielder will be right in the middle of the Blue Devils scoring opportunities again today, along with Bruno in the lead-off spot.

LIU-Brooklyn defeated Robert Morris University 7-3 in the second game of the opening round on Thursday.

The game begins at 10:30 and is live on NECFrontRow.com, that’s where I am watching and I am tweeting from @DCTViper89 throughout the game.

Blue Devils, Behind the Power of Malcolm Defeat Monmouth for First Tourney Victory

Before the game started, the season long awards were given out and Kat Malcolm collected some hardware.

The sophomore center fielder was named First Team All-Conference, Most Improved Player and Player of the Year and when the game was over, she was NEC Front Row’s Player of the Game.

With no outs in the bottom of the first, Malcolm came to the plate with Arielle Bruno on first. She blasted her 10th home run of the year high on the hill in center field to give the Blue Devils a quick 2-0 lead.

This lead would be important if you look at history. Back on April 14, when these two teams met in New Jersey, the pitching match-up was the same and would tell the story. Lauren Sulick and Laura Messina would combine for 19 1/3 innings, 10 hits, 3 walks, 18 strikeouts and ONE run. That lone run came in the bottom of the tenth off the bat of Kaitie Schumacher of Monmouth.

Sulick, brought the fourth best ERA in the conference to today’s game against the winningest pitcher in the conference in Messina; a pitcher’s duel was expected.

Monmouth collected a hit in the second, but Messina struck out the other three batters and then in the bottom of the inning CCSU got runners on first and second, but couldn’t extend the lead. Both teams went down in order in the third.

It seemed like Sulick had settled in until the bottom of the fourth when the Blue Devils put together three hits and a walk on their way to three more runs. Stephanie Chotkevys singled to begin the inning and was pinch run for by Katie Schmidt. With one out, Bruno walked and Malcolm followed with a run scoring single up the middle, her third RBI of the day. Springer continued the inning with a RBI single of her own to right center scoring Bruno. Malcolm came around to score on a sacrifice fly to center off the bat of Kelsey Barlow.

Each pitcher faced the minimum over the next two innings and it looked like Messina would get her 12th shutout of the year until the Hawks mounted somewhat of a rally in the top of the seventh.

Vanessa Cardoza reached on a pop up that fell just out of the reach of Bruno running towards the right field line. Kayla Weiser followed with a single of her own and the run came when Shannon Fitzgerald singled up the middle chasing Cardoza home from second. Messina retired the next three batters in order to claim her 24th victory of the year and the first tournament victory for the Blue Devils in their history.

Messina finished with seven strikeouts in seven innings while allowing only five hits and one walk.

Malcolm’s home run tied the CCSU single-season record which she now shares with teammates Nicole Springer and Kelsey Barlow.

The Blue Devils will play Friday at 10:30 a.m. against the winner of #2 Robert Morris University and #4 LIU-Brooklyn being played right now.

Blue Devils Set Records on Way to NEC Tournament

The CCSU softball said from the very beginning their goal was to win a Northeast Conference title. Well, as I write this, the team is on their way to Moon Township, Penn. as the #2 seed in the tournament beginning Thursday at 11:30 a.m.

The Blue Devils had the best season in their 27 year history at the Division I level. They finished with a 32-13 record, which is the most wins in program history and the 16-4 conference record is the most NEC wins since they joined the conference in 1999.

CCSU heads into the tournament on a four game winning streak after splitting a double-header with Robert Morris University on April 27. If the Blue Devils had won that second game, which ended in extra-innings, the NEC tournament would be in New Britain this weekend. But that aside, Central is most likely the team to beat.

Laura Messina has been as consistent and solid as they come this year in the pitching circle. The sophomore right-hander posted a fantastic freshman season, but was even more dominant this year. In 207.2 innings pitched (Tops in the NEC), Messina struck out 210 batters, breaking her own single-season record and won 23 games, also a new record. Heading into the tournament, Messina holds the CCSU career wins (45), strikeouts (430) and shutouts (16). She is second in complete games with 58 and third in innings pitched at 427.1.

As far as how she compares to the rest of the nation, Messina recorded 12 shutouts just this season, good for fourth in the country. The NCAA has her with 24 wins which would put her at 20th in the nation, although the CCSU statistics show only 23 wins, still impressive. And her 223 strikeouts is 29th nationally.

Messina wasn’t the only Blue Devil putting up big numbers this year, there were some power bats at the plate as well.

Kat Malcolm, the sophomore center fielder, led the team with a .429 batting average, which was also 29th best in the country. The speedster beat out a lot of infield hits on her way to the single-season hit record with 66 and also led the team with 46 runs scored, breaking the team’s single-season record of 44 previously set by Becca Mussatti in 2010.

From day one, the freshman were called upon to perform at a high level and they definitely did their job. Evie Rentzel led the way for the newcomers with a .360 average, 31 RBIs and 25 runs scored. On April 7, in the second game vs. St. Francis (PA), the game was tied at 11-11 heading into extra-innings until Rentzel hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the eighth the keep the Blue Devils undefeated conference record, at the time, alive. In the first game of the conference schedule, Rentzel hit two home runs against Wagner College on Staten Island.

Behind the plate, Hannah Cooper has started all but two games and really showed that the catching spot will be solid for the next three years. She has a .990 fielding percentage and threw out 14 would-be base stealers (44.4%). In the middle of the season, coach Jeff Franquet said Cooper probably has the strongest arm in the conference and I’ve seen it, she has a cannon.

The other two freshman who saw significant playing time were Eileen Purcell and Brittany Ernst. Ernst, used as a pinch runner many times, stole seven bases to share the team lead with Malcolm and also scored 22 runs in limited chances.

Purcell played a lot of left field for the Blue Devils and showed that she could get it done.

Quietly Kelsey Barlow had a great senior year. Coming into the season she was one home run shy of breaking the career record and she did just that, hitting nine long balls in 2013, one shy of her own single-season record that she also shares with Nicole Springer. With one RBI in the final game of the regular season, Barlow set a new career RBI record at 109.

There have been so many records that the team has set this year, but I can’t talk about them all. One last player that deserves mentioning however is the team’s lead-off batter, Arielle Bruno. With 48 more hits this year, the second baseman has 162 in her career, good for third overall. She also set the career runs record currently at 113.

At 11:30 a.m. the Blue Devils will take on the Hawks of Monmouth as the #2 and 3 seeds in the tournament. Monmouth swept CCSU back on April 14 by scores of 1-0 and 5-2 for the only conference sweep of the Blue Devils this season. Franquet told me on multiple occasions that he told his team after that weekend that, “Today Monmouth was the better team, but on May 9-11, we will be the better team.”

CCSU enters the tournament for the second time in history and the first time finishing in the top four. Back in 2011, they finished fifth, but Bryant in the fourth spot could not participate in postseason play yet as they were still in their buffer period since joining the conference. You can watch the entire tournament on NECFrontRow.com…That’s where I’ll be tomorrow and Friday and hopefully Saturday.

Cold-blooded Kyle Vinales

Quinnipiac took a two point lead with about 30 seconds to go, Kyle Vinales held the ball close to half court while the clocked ticked to under ten seconds. It looked as if Vinales would drive to tie the game, but he didn’t. The defense gave him enough room to pop and shoot. I think the crowd went silent. SPLASH! They erupted. Joe Efese hugged Vinales at half court as the sophomore guard soaked in the reaction from his fellow students.

This was not the biggest or best game of Vinales’ career statistically, but it was easily the most exciting. At the half, Vinales had only five points and it was looking like it was going to be a tough night on the boards versus the second leading rebounding team in the country. Numerous times Quinnipiac would miss a layup, but then get three or four chances to put it back. The Bobcats grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and scored 13 second chance points.

I predicted before the game that Quinnipiac would out-rebound Central by 20 and Ike Azotam would have 18 himself, let’s see how close I was…

QU 47, CCSU 35 = 12

Ike Azotam – 6

So I was wrong, but I am glad I was wrong. Almost every time Azotam touched the ball on the offensive side, he was double-teamed. That’s the only way to stop a beast like him down low. Zaid Hearst was the guy who could have killed the Blue Devils tonight. He shot 6-11 for 17 points and as the Bobcats inbounded with 5.6 seconds left for a shot to tie or win, I knew he had to be tightly guarded.

Evan Conti drove the length of the court, but his runner came up short as time expired giving CCSU their eighth Northeast Conference victory of the season, thus clinching a spot in the conference tournament. I have no idea who holds the tiebreakers and all that stuff, but the Blue Devils won in dramatic fashion tonight and that’s all that matters.

If you want more on the NEC tournament and such as the season winds down, but tournament time heats up, follow the following people on Twitter…

@nybuckets

@pioneer_pride

@NECHoopsRon

…and many more