For most collegiate teams, winning a conference title would be considered a great accomplishment. For the Minutewomen, however, it should be more routine than anything. This year, UMass will go for its seventh-straight Atlantic 10 Championship title and its 15th in the last 16 years.
Prior to the season, A-10 coaches picked UMass to again capture the conference title. Fast forward to May, when the Maroon and White dismiss Fordham or Charlotte in the final game and proceed to celebrate around junior ace Sara Plourde. What happens next? If history says anything, UMass will go on to the NCAA Tournament, only to be knocked out in the regional round, a round robin amongst four teams.
The trend began in 1999, broke in 2006 (when UMass advanced to the super regionals), and was revived in 2007, when the Minutewomen went 2-2 in the regionals but couldn’t advance. UMass proceeded to make first round exits the following three years. Last year, the Minutewomen lost to Long Island and Boston University in consecutive contests, their first 0-2 NCAA Tournament start since 2005.
At the helm for UMass is Hall of Fame coach Elaine Sortino, who carries a 1,100-451-6 record into her 32nd season. Much like previous years, Sortino stated that her goal is not only to win the A-10 Championship, but to make it deep into the NCAA Tournament. The latter hasn’t been accomplished since 1997 and 1998, when the Minutewomen lost in the Women’s College World Series. In 20 NCAA appearances, UMass is 32-41.
While the Minutewomen tend to dominate teams in the northeast, they often fall to the powerhouses of other regions. This was demonstrated during late February’s Cathedral City Classic, when UMass dropped five straight to California, Washington, Oklahoma State, Texas and Fresno State. These are the types of teams the Minutewomen would match up against late in the NCAA’s, and a repeat performance like late February’s is sure to produce another early round exit.
While cruising through the regular season and winning the conference is well and good, it shouldn’t be good enough. Sortino and her players understand that, but it comes down producing when it counts. The Minutewomen were outscored 13-5 in the NCAA Tournament last year, as their hitting and pitching abandoned them.
Key losses from last year include outfielder Carly Normandin, who led the team in batting average (.400) and stolen bases (13) and first baseman Sarah Reeves, who was second on the team in batting average (.340) and RBIs (41) and tied for first in home runs (13).
While the two seniors will surely be missed, there’s no reason to think the Minutewomen can’t come close to or replicate the 17-0-1 conference record they posted last year. Senior catcher and utility player Meghan Carta will return along with juniors Katie Bettencourt and Kyllie Magill. The trio is depended on to lead UMass’ offense along with several newcomers who Sortino is excited about.
The Minutewomen offense sputtered severely to start the 2011 season, scoring 25 runs in their first 12 games en route to a 2-12
start. They’ve resurged since then, though, exploding for a 17-0 shutout victory over Toledo before scoring 18 runs in their next three games for a four-game win streak.
Perhaps the most important player returning for UMass is Plourde. The bonafide ace went 40-8 last year, while recording a nation-high 556 strikeouts in 311.1 innings to go along with a 1.30 ERA. In 16 starts, she registered 12 complete games. When Plourde takes the bump, she gives her team a chance to win.
But we know the Minutewomen will win. They will win often throughout their A-10 schedule. They will probably win the A-10 Championship. The NCAA’s, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter.
Much like the Red Sox or the Yankees, UMass’ ultimate goal shouldn’t be to have a successful regular season. Instead, it’s to make the playoffs – and win it all. As each MLB season ends and the preseason begins, you can always watch as Derek Jeter calmly listens to the same, mundane questions which elicit the same, mundane responses. As bored as Jeter gets with the media, he’s telling the truth when he says the season was a failure if his Yankees didn’t win the World Series.
That’s the same way the Minutewomen should think. With all of their success within the conference, they should be embarrassed with their lack of success out of the conference. Most people considered last year’s season to be successful, and with a 42-10-1 record, that point would be very hard to argue. But UMass’ measure of success needs to change. If winning the A-10 becomes routine, then it should no longer be considered an outstanding accomplishment. Sortino and her players need to focus on reviving the powerhouse UMass teams of 1997 and 1998 which made it to the College World Series.
Granted, advancing in the NCAA Tournament is no easy task. Every team involved is among the best in the country. The fact remains, though, that the Minutewomen haven’t advanced past the first round since 2006, and there are no players from that squad on the current roster. It’s a new group from four years ago – a group that should put all their focus on breaking UMass’ streak of futility in the NCAA’s.
A strong returning cast should ensure that the Maroon and White will enter the season not only as conference favorites, but as NCAA contenders. The question of whether or not UMass will have a successful season is rarely debated. If the Minutewomen don’t succeed in the NCAA’s, it should be.
Steve Levine is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.