Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Softball season starts with tough test in weekend tournaments

Begin season down south

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Softball season starts with tough test in weekend tournaments

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

By Tim Sorota, Collegian Staff

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The Massachusetts softball team has little time for winter. With players from California, Arizona and Florida, it is a safe bet their tolerance for cold weather is a lot lower than most other collegiate teams from the Northeast. Fortunately for UMass, so is the amount of time they will spend in another unforgiving Amherst February.

The Minutewomen will be heading south this February and early March to compete in four weekend tournaments where they will be pitted against some of the best opponents they will face all season.

They began their 2019 season last weekend in Orlando, Fla., competing in the Diamond 9 Citrus Challenge. Later this week they will head to Athens, Ga. for the Georgia Classic, followed by Greenville, N.C. to participate in the Purple and Gold Invitational, and finally, they will conclude their tournament schedule back in Florida by taking on the field at the USF Tournament in Tampa and Clearwater.

Weekend tournaments provide the team with a much needed break from the frosty New England air and snow which will cover their home, Sortino Field, for the foreseeable future. But there is nothing relaxing about traveling to and from tournaments every weekend while maintaining the responsibilities of a student athlete.

The next four weeks for UMass softball will be filled with games against stiff competition, a lack of sleep and thousands of miles of travel. It presents an immediate challenge for the players and can put extra stress on some underclassmen who have less experience balancing the extremes of participating in these tournaments.

The team saw just how crazy their travel schedule can be over this past weekend. After completing a 3-1 victory over Providence in Orlando around 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon, they had plans to travel from Orlando to Atlanta with expectations of continuing onto Boston in a realistic time frame, but the weather had other ideas.

After landing in Boston at 1 a.m., the team bus trekked through a snowy and windy New England night to return to UMass after 4 a.m. Homework and classes were not going to wait around for them.

“It is really just a mindset,” said senior Kaycee Carbone. “You just have to push through not getting a lot of sleep and have good time management.”

Despite the daunting nature of the challenge, Carbone said her and her teammates enjoy the tournaments and see them as a valuable way to get reps against some of the nation’s best.

“We are going to so many cool places and we are playing so many good teams that are preparing us for conference play,” the Hudson, N.H. native said. “We love this.”

The Georgia Classic has likely been on Carbone and her teammates’ calendars since their schedule was released. The Minutewomen will head to the University of Georgia for two contests against the Bulldogs, No. 8 in the country and the highest ranked non-conference opponent for UMass this season.

Coach Kristi Stefanoni echoed her star left fielder on the benefits of facing elite competition like Georgia before Atlantic 10 play begins.

“I think it sets a really high bar for us,” she said. “It is really challenging for us to take these first couple of tournaments and play the best possible teams we can at their tournaments.”

The sixth-year coach knows firsthand just how a month of facing elite competition from all across the country can better prepare a team for conference play. A season ago, the former star Minutewoman saw her team post a 12-10 mark during 22 tournament games. In their remaining 25 games, they would only lose twice.

Knowing the benefits does not make the job any easier.

“It is something that you not only have to be physically prepared for, but also mentally prepared for,” Stefanoni said. “You are given two days of practice to try and clean up some stuff that did not go as well during that weekend (just) to be ready for another really difficult weekend.”

No matter what happens in the win and loss column, the coach hopes her team learns and improves over the four tournaments.

“We are going to learn a lot about how we handle pressure situations,” Stefanoni said. “When it comes in conference play we can say, ‘Hey, this is how the situation presented itself and this is how we conquered it.’”

One group of players who may get the most benefit from early season tournaments are the freshmen. It will be a trial by fire for many of them who will see some of their first collegiate action against the best teams they may face all year.

The step up from high school and club softball to Division I is substantial and even more so when those Division I players are from elite conferences and elite teams.

“The first tournament is really nerve wracking,” Carbone said, reflecting on her early collegiate experiences. “The first couple of at-bats are a little shaky. But after that, it is just really fun.”

Another senior with some perspective is shortstop Kaitlyn Stavinoha, who began her career during February of 2016 in North Carolina and recorded an RBI in her first contest.

“It is definitely a big stage,” Stavinoha said. “But we are excited for them. I think they are excited to go out there and show their stuff.”

Cross-country tournaments are nothing new for northeastern teams or any team that has to deal with an extended winter. For a team like UMass, with expectations of winning the A-10, some of their season’s biggest strides can come when their home field is still under a coat of snow.

Despite all the memories and the benefits UMass will get during this month stretch, you might be hard pressed to find the Minutewomen wishing for anything other than warm weather and the Sortino Field dirt underneath their cleats.

For now, these will have to do.

Tim Sorota can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @timsorota.

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