The 2013 season officially raised the bar for the Pilgrim softball team.
Now the Patriots want to keep it there.
Pilgrim went 13-3 last year, its best record since 2003, and achieved its goal of making it to the late rounds of the playoffs at Rhode Island College. As the 2014 season gets underway this week, the Pats will be trying to replace a few key players but won’t be adjusting expectations much.
“Once you get to a certain level, you don’t want to pull back,” said head coach Bill Aquilante. “If we get through the transition period quickly and we’re playing well when late May rolls around, I think we have as good a shot as anybody.”
Last season’s success continued a steady climb for the program, which went 3-15 just four years ago. Four starters are gone from last year, though – including standout shortstop Katelyn Reph and pitcher Witashnah Ellsworth – which means surviving that transition period will be key.
Aquilante thinks the Pats can do it. They bring back four of their best hitters from a year ago and the players in the program now have only known success.
“It’s just a matter of how quickly we put everything together,” Aquilante said.
The Pats return two all-division players in junior Ellen McDonnell and senior Caitlin Blanchard. Kelsey Johnston, a returning starter at third base, joins Blanchard as a senior captain. Junior Tayla Ferreira and sophomore Madison Balutowski are also returning starters.
McDonnell has been one of the team’s best hitters since her freshman season. This year, she’ll do even more for the Pats. She’s set to assume the bulk of the pitching duties, while reprising her role as the biggest hitter in the order. She pitched occasionally last year, with Ellsworth getting most of the innings.
“She’s got good confidence and she’s smart,” Aquilante said of McDonnell. “In the two scrimmages we’ve had, she’s pitched very well. She’s got a very high softball IQ.”
McDonnell was the regular catcher last year, so her move to the pitcher’s circle creates a gap in the other half of the battery, too. Thankfully for the Pats, Balutowski – who played center field last year – is a catcher by trade and is ready to take over.
“She’s a catcher first and foremost so this isn’t a stretch for her,” Aquilante said. “She can play anywhere. She’s been calling the pitches so far and working well with Ellen.”
Blanchard will be back at first base with Johnston at third. They’ll also anchor the middle of the order, behind the speedy Balutowski in the leadoff spot and McDonnell in the two-hole.
Ferreira is slated to be back at second base, where she was a solid defender and a key part of the bottom of the batting order last year. Sophomore Jane Dwyer will likely step into Reph’s spot at shortstop.
The outfield spots are up for grabs, and Aquilante is thinking of using platoons early in the season to keep the competition going. Junior Erin Isherwood has the most experience and may have the inside track on center field. Juniors McKenzie Barone and Loren Saucier are in the mix, along with sophomore Lisa Kelley. Freshmen Victoria Blanchard and Jeriann Evans are also pushing for a chance. Another freshman, Morgan Almon, is the team’s second pitcher and Aquilante will be trying to get her bat into the lineup, as well.
“Last year, we pretty much had our lineup all set,” Aquilante said. “This year, you might see all 13 players in games, even league games, until we find the right combinations.”
One of the most important parts of that process will be finding players who can make things happen at the bottom of the batting order. Last year, Aquilante attributed much of his team’s success to its strength from one-to-nine.
“What made us successful last year was the bottom of our order really produced a lot,” Aquilante said. “Caitlin Blanchard batted sixth and had 28 RBIs. Tayla Ferreira batted eighth and hit .300. We want to find a combination that can give us that again.”
And they want to find it quickly. The Pats will open the season with a tour of its own sub-division, Division II-South, which shapes up as a gauntlet.
“East Greenwich has to be the favorite at this point, with two girls committed to D-I schools,” Aquilante said. “EWG has one of the top pitchers, West Warwick has everybody back, Prout has one of the best players in the division, SK had a good young team last year. It really could be that everybody’s better.”
The Pats hope to join the parade. It could be a difficult task, but they won’t shy away from it.
“We had 13 wins last year,” Aquilante said. “We don’t have to get 13 again, but we have to be playing well and peaking at the right time.”
Pilgrim will open the season with a non-league game against Warwick Vets on Wednesday at 3:45 p.m., at Winslow Park. League play begins Saturday, with an 11 a.m. home game against Prout, also at Winslow Park.