The University of Southern Maine softball team has won 31 games this spring – the second-most in program history. But the Huskies weren’t sure that would be enough to secure an NCAA Division III tournament berth after they lost to Eastern Connecticut State last weekend in the Little East Conference championship series.
Even at 31-4-1, USM had to sweat out an at-large bid. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA tournament field was reduced, and only seven at-large bids were available.
It turns out that USM’s resume was strong enough. The Huskies will play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, meeting Linfield College at 3 p.m. Friday in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The Huskies are one of six teams in the double-elimination regional at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
“In the back of my mind, I had hoped we had a chance, but I didn’t think we had that great of a chance, especially since they only had seven (at-large) bids because of COVID,” said USM senior catcher Ashley Tinsman of Cape Elizabeth. “I was hoping and praying that we would get it … and I couldn’t be more happy or excited that we got the chance to keep going. I think we deserve it. Our performance on the field proved how special a team we are. We’re finally getting the recognition we deserve.”
The Huskies had an outstanding regular season, winning the school’s first LEC regular-season championship since 1998. Eastern Connecticut was the only conference team to beat USM, once in the regular season and twice in the championship series. The Huskies batted .359 during the regular season, and their pitchers posted a 2.17 ERA.
Coach Sarah Jamo wants her players to remember how well they played throughout the season when they take the field against Linfield (36-7), which is in the NCAAs for the 16th time in the last 18 years. She doesn’t want the Huskies to be nervous on the biggest stage they’ve played on.
“I tell them to just remember the moments they’ve had,” she said. “These seniors have played in a lot of big moments, especially down the stretch. I want them to remember the sweep of Castleton and the sweep of Plymouth State. They’ve been there. They’ve had big moments.
“And it’s not just one person who is going to win this. It’s a team thing. KP (Kirsten Pelletier) is not going to strike out 21 batters. It’s going to take hitting. It’s going to take fielding.”
Pelletier, who led the Huskies with a 13-1 record while posting a 2.50 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 103 2/3 innings, will start the game against Linfield. But Jamo said everyone has to be ready. Alexis Brown is 11-2 with a 2.37 ERA.
“We only play the one game on Friday,” she said. “So it’s all hands on deck pitching-wise.”
Pelletier is looking forward to showcasing the Huskies’ skills. “This means so much,” she said. “I think this team is so cool because of all the athletes represented from Maine. We’re getting out there and showing the sport has grown so much in this state.”
“I think this is extremely special,” said Tinsman. “I think it’s important that we get to show people throughout the country we can play softball too. I think there’s a lot of doubt around the country that people from Maine and New England can play as well as they can. We just want to show what we can do.”
Offensively, Tinsman has been the leader all season, hitting .446 with seven home runs, 49 RBI and 42 runs scored – all team highs. Kaitlyn Nelson follows at .390, with freshman Madison Day hitting .387 and sophomore Lauren Leidemann-Smith at .382.
“I think this team built confidence throughout the year,” Jamo said. “We’ve won games in so many ways, going up big, finishing strong, coming back, believing whatever the situation was that they faced, they could handle it.”