Ivy Leaf - Fall 2013
Before they had played their first game of the 2013 season, the Penn State Altoona softball team knew that this could be their year to win a conference title for the first time in program history. They had made runs deep into the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference Tournament in recent years, falling just short of a championship. But as the team readied itself for 2013, they felt confident that they would go all the way.
In 2012, the Lady Lions set a program record with thirty-three wins and had a host of individual milestones and record-setting performances. But their conference season ended with an extra innings loss to Penn State Behrend in the AMCC Championship game, stranding the team from reaching its ultimate goal. Instead of dwelling on the negative, they used that heartbreaking loss as motivation for 2013.
“We fell short of the AMCC title last season, and that gave a lot of us the drive to prove to the conference that we could do it,” said sophomore first baseman Kelly Chambers. “A lot of our confidence came from our two great seniors, Jackie Smith and Becca Enedy, who came back to lead us in their last year.”
Penn State Altoona returned eight players from 2012, and each of them remembered the bitterness of losing in the AMCC title game. The leadership of the returners, including the seniors Smith and Enedy, helped guide the way for a talented crop of newcomers who complemented the team’s roster in 2013.
“Every player stepped up to provide leadership at some point during the season,” explained head coach Fred Caldwell, who completed his fourth year at the helm of the program. “We wanted each and every player to accept responsibility for themselves and the team and to take on some part of the leadership role.”
The 2013 Lady Lions featured a fifteen-player roster that proved to be among the most well-rounded in recent memory. The team’s batters could hit for both average and power, and they were able to generate offense on the base paths using speed. The pitching staff anchored the team by performing reliably throughout the year, and they were backed up by a strong defense in the field.
“Depth and versatility were definitely keys to our success. Several players saw time at a number of positions this year, and there was no one on the roster who couldn’t step in and start if needed,” said Caldwell. “That versatility allowed us to be two or three deep at every position with no real drop off in talent.”
Having legitimate talent at every position gave Penn State Altoona reason to be optimistic about its ability to win games based purely on skill. But the players also possessed a workmanlike attitude as they entered the season, resolving to take care of business on a game-by-game basis.
“We were confident because we had a team that was not only talented but had a lot of motivation and drive to get better,” explained Smith, a senior pitcher. “We believed in ourselves, and we played to win.”
The team got off to a strong start in its annual season-opening competition in the Fastpitch Dreams Classic in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, going 7-3 during the early March trip. After a twenty-six-day layoff due to weather-related postponements, the Lady Lions finally resumed its season in April. The squad showed little signs of rust, going 10-2 in its first twelve games against AMCC opponents.
But Penn State Altoona hit a wall in mid-April, stumbling into a 3-5 skid. This included a pair of stinging, one-run losses against AMCC foes Medaille College and D’Youville College. With the postseason looming, the Lady Lions needed to regroup and go on a run to finish first in the conference and clinch the top seed heading into the tournament. The team did just that, winning its final four regular season games and finishing with the best record in the AMCC at 14-4. This gave them home field advantage throughout the tournament, hosting the playoff weekend at Stewart Athletic Field.
“This team really believed in themselves and each other, even during the slump,” Caldwell stated. “There was no quit in the team, and they always stayed calm and found a way to right the ship.”
That theme continued into the AMCC Tournament. In its first game, the Lady Lions trailed Mount Aloysius College 5-1 after four and a half innings. But Penn State Altoona rallied to score six runs and close out the game with a 7-5 victory. In the next game, the Lady Lions overcame a 2-1 deficit against D’Youville, scoring two runs in the bottom of the seventh to seal a walk-off win and a berth to the AMCC title game.
“Those wins gave us a momentum advantage heading into the championship game,” said Chambers. “Those types of games take a lot out of a player, both mentally and physically, but it also shows what the player and the team are made of. We’re a team that never gives up, and that is what gives us our strength, confidence, and determination to win.”
In the championship contest, Penn State Altoona faced Pitt-Bradford. The Lady Lions jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the third, cruising to an 8-1 win to grab the program’s first-ever AMCC title.
Smith, who pitched the entire game for her team, recorded a strikeout for the last out. Upon the swing and miss, the team dog-piled in celebration. It was a surreal moment for Smith.
“After the last out of that game, I was so happy that I could not believe it was over. The only thing going through my head at that time was ‘is this real?’” said Smith. “It was a memory that I’ll never forget.”
Rewarded with an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Regional Tournament because of the conference championship, the Lady Lions traveled to Roanoke, Virginia, where they faced top-ranked Salisbury University and Roanoke College. It was the softball program’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and despite being eliminated with a pair of losses, it instilled a great deal of pride in the players and coaches. The squad felt like they could play with some of the best teams in the nation.
“Going to the NCAA Tournament was great for the program, both in gaining recognition from other teams and in recruiting future players,” said Caldwell. “After the tournament, we were invited to play in two separate spring tournaments that are by invitation only and usually include many of the top-ranked teams in the country. Playing those teams will greatly improve our strength of schedule, as well as expose our program and Penn State Altoona in general to many more potential student-athletes.”
The experience of winning the AMCC championship and competing in the NCAA Tournament was a storybook ending for all of the players and coaches, but it was especially sweet for Smith. The senior wrapped up her four-year career with Penn State Altoona by realizing her athletic goals with a strong, supportive team.
“It truly felt amazing to have a team that was so motivated and so close. It really helped with our success,” she said. “My career end could not have been any better than that. It was an accomplishment for the whole team, and it is something that I can look back at and not have any regrets.”
The softball team gained additional recognition within the AMCC when eight players earned All-Conference status at the end of the year: Chambers, pitcher Raychel DeArmitt, catcher Lily Glunt, outfielders Clarissa Keller and Alamaria Miller, third baseman Christina Stathes, second baseman Brittany Smith, and Jackie Smith. But the team knows that, statistics aside, every individual on the squad played an important role in its success during the 2013 season.