It’s been a steady rise for the Pilgrim softball team the last few years. After a three-win campaign in 2010, the Pats improved to 9-7 and made the playoffs in 2011. Last season, they went 10-6 and went on a deep postseason run.
Now it’s time for more.
“I look at it this way – two years ago, we knocked on the door,” said Pilgrim head coach Bill Aquilante. “Last year, we banged on the door. This year, our job is to kick the door down. We want to take the next step.”
It’s a goal that should be within reach.
The last two seasons have established the Pats as Division II contenders, and their playoff run in 2012 was the best evidence yet. They won their first-round game, lost to eventual champion East Greenwich in the next round, but came back through the losers’ bracket and nearly knocked off eventual runner-up West Warwick.
While the team lost six players to graduation, a strong and experienced nucleus remains in the fold.
“We lost six seniors, but we bring back a lot,” Aquilante said. “And it’s a lot of players at key positions. We’ve got most of our infield back and we’ll have two pitchers again. We should be in good shape.”
The lineup will be led by senior Katelyn Reph, a starter since her freshman year. She’ll anchor the infield from the shortstop position and is penciled in to bat leadoff again, where she excelled last season.
Junior Kelsey Johnston is a returning starter at third base, while senior Stephanie Johnson returns for her third year as the starter in left field. Junior Caitlin Blanchard was a starter last year before an injury, and she’ll take over at first base.
Junior Witashnah Ellsworth and sophomore Ellen McDonnell are two of the team’s most talented and versatile players. Ellsworth can pitch and play center field, while McDonnell can pitch, play center field or catch. McDonnell is coming off a freshman season that saw her emerge as the team’s top hitter.
Those six players give the Pats their foundation.
“With those six, we really know what we have,” Aquilante said.
Seniors Arianna Bordeleau and McKenzie Avedisian are competing for outfield spots, while sophomores Tayla Ferreira and Erin Isherwood are in the mix for an open spot at second base. Isherwood can also catch. Freshman Madison Balutowski has made the varsity roster and could contribute in the outfield or at the catcher’s spot.
A few other roster spots are up for grabs, and Aquilante will use a full slate of scrimmages this week to hammer everything out.
However it shakes out, the Pats seem to have the pieces in place to contend once again.
“I think we’ll score runs,” Aquilante said. “Defensively, we haven’t been able to get outside much, but I’m not too worried about that because of the veterans we have in the infield.”
As for the pitching, it’ll certainly be different this year, but Aquilante is still confident. The graduated Carly Cabral was a mainstay for several years and was a true workhorse last season. With Ellsworth and McDonnell ready to go, though, expectations remain high.
“We have two who can both pitch and play outfield, and I think they’re very capable,” Aquilante said. “We’ll see how it goes in the scrimmages. We could end up with a one-and-one situation where they alternate, or if one gets hot, we’ll keep her going. Whoever doesn’t pitch is still going to be a big part of the lineup.”
And the Pats will need all the help they can get. Realignment put them into Division II-South along with two-time defending state champ East Greenwich, West Warwick, Exeter/West Greenwich, Prout and South Kingstown. Four of those teams had winning records last year, and East Greenwich, West Warwick and Prout were three of the last four steams standing in the playoffs.
Pilgrim will play each of those teams twice, along with six crossover games with teams from D-II-North.
“I joked at the meeting that our division should be called the English Premier League,” Aquilante said. “I think it’ll be good for us. We’ll be battle-tested. We’re going to play good teams all year.”
And they’re ready to embrace the quest.
“They remember that last season ended in tears,” Aquilante said. “Motivation is not going to be a problem.”