The start to every softball season is similar in some ways and different in many others. Every January, the practices begin for the regular season. Every year the practices are the same, but new recruits come in to join the team.
This season, the Gannon University softball team, which opened play Friday in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional tournament with a 3-2 loss against fourth-seed Charleston University, welcomed five freshmen. As many would think, freshmen usually do not get that much playing time right off the bat. But this season has been a little bit of a rollercoaster.
To start the fall season, the team boasted 21 players but as the fall season started to progress, some people started to choose separate paths. The team lost four members during the duration of the fall ball season. That left the team with 17 strong.
Going into the semester break, Coach Tom Jakubowski was worried about the small numbers, but was optimistic that the team would be successful.
“I never would have thought going into winter break that I would have lost four players,” he said. “Conditioning for the team always starts in January, and I was certain that the team would bounce back and be determined and ready to accomplish anything.”
Little did he know that before the spring training trip down to Florida came along, two more players — the starting shortstop and an outfielder — would be done for the season due to injuries. This left Gannon with 15 players for the rest of the season.
Practicing every day for a month and a half before playing any games is tiring enough, but with only 15 players, Jakubowski was a little nervous.
“Practicing every day always takes a toll on their bodies for sure, but my worry was having so few of them to do the amount of drills we normally would do,” he said. “I had to cut down on the amount of rigorous agility we did because I was afraid someone would get hurt, and we could not afford another one down.”
Fortunately, the team survived the month and a half of practice and came out injury-free and ready for the trip down to Florida. The Knights went down to Clermont, Fla., for a week to play 11 games. The weather was the best part about it, as 80-degree temperatures and the sun were a nice change from the freezing cold and snow of Erie.
Besides the weather, games were being played as well. Of the 11 games Gannon played during the week, the team went 6-5. It was a rather good start to the season considering the injuries and the team’s small roster. The Knights were looking for a better outcome, but senior Meghan Cunha was still pleased.
“Battling injury on top of injury so far this season and still finishing Florida with a winning record is great feeling,” she said at the time. “With this kind of momentum going into the rest of the season, I cannot wait to see what we have in store.”
Following the spring break week down in Florida, Gannon was scheduled to play in the Salem Invitational in Salem, Va., but inclement weather led to a cancellation of that tournament. That meant the team had to continue practicing until its first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference game at the end of March.
This left the Lady Knights with three weeks of practice without seeing game action. Jakubowski was worried once again because of the rocky start to the season.
“I was just anxious to get out on our field and play,” he said. “Not playing a game in three weeks, and then facing strong conference opponents for the next month was a little nerve-wracking for me. I had faith, though, that this team would pull together and focus on the big picture.”
Luckily for him, he was right. The Knights started off the season with a sweep against Edinboro and went on to an 8-0 start before losing to rival Mercyhurst.
“Obviously every team’s goal is to go undefeated for the season, but it is very difficult,” pitching coach Michelle Wiley said. “This team is something special and we knew it from the beginning. Winning that many in a row was a blessing in itself.”
The cold, wet spring played havoc with the schedule, and the many cancellations prevented the team from playing all of its conference games. Gannon finished the regular season 25-12 overall with a conference record of 19-7.
Since none of the teams finished all of their PSAC games, the conference decided that the four teams in each division with the most victories would advance to the PSAC Tournament. In most years, the top four teams are decided by winning percentage.
Luckily for the Knights, 19 wins was enough for them to secure the No. 3 seed in the West for the PSAC Tournament. For the fifth straight season, Gannon would meet Bloomsburg in the opening round of the tournament, and this time the Knights’ 2-0 win put them into the winners bracket and gave them a second-round matchup with California University of Pennsylvania.
Katie Dunn, a redshirt senior in her fifth year in the program, said she was happy with the way the Knights opened the tournament. “I am so proud of my team and how they all came together to start off the day right,” she said. “We still had one more to play that day and winning the first one was huge because we did not want to get sent home after the first day.”
Gannon and CalU had played four times during the regular season, with the Vulcans winning three. Still, the Knights felt capable of hanging with California.
“We were ready for the challenge,” senior Jess Rectenwald said at the time. Rectenwald would go on to be named the PSAC Western Division Athlete of the Year.
“We know Cal very well and we know we are good enough to beat them. We have shown that this season but just have come up a little short. If we play to the best of our ability, we can beat them anytime.”
Gannon did just that, beating California University 5-4 and sending the Vulcans into the losers bracket on the first day. Going into the second day of the tournament 2-0, Gannon felt unstoppable. The Knights were excited to take on any team that stood in their way.
“I saw a fire in their eyes that I have never seen before,” Jakubowski said of his team. “I love seeing them come together as a team and win big games. We have a small team and surprisingly I’m good with that. They are closer than any team I have ever coached, and want to win for each other.”
Going into the second day of the tournament, the Knights would play West Chester. Gannon led 2-0 before the Rams tacked on four runs. The Knights did not panic, as they had fallen behind many times this season. Scoring one run in the fourth, Gannon cut the lead to one. Going into the fifth inning, the Knights rallied for five runs and eventually claimed an 8-4 win.
This win put Gannon in Saturday’s conference championship game. All the adrenaline and excitement was running though the veins of the players that night. It was the first time since moving to the PSAC Conference in 2008 that Gannon had made it to a softball championship game.
“This season has been amazing and it’s still not over yet,” junior Alexa Archambeault said at the time. “With all the injuries and issues we have had through this season, I never would have thought we would be where we are. It is a great feeling to have when your team has jumped over obstacles and still be as successful as they are.”
The Knights had to face CalU once again, and this time the Vulcans would need to beat the Knights twice to claim the PSAC crown. That’s exactly what Cal did, coming from behind to win the first game, 8-5. The Knights could not bounce back from the first loss and lost the second contest 3-2 to give the Vulcans the conference title.
The Knights were devastated as they saw all their hard work crumble right before their eyes.
“I love my team to pieces,” Jakubowski said after the game. “It was so hard to see my family cry. They worked so hard for this moment and came up just a little bit short. I am not taking away from anything they have accomplished this season because they are the most resilient group of women I have ever coached, and I love being their coach every day. I have a strong feeling this ride is not over just yet.”
Jakubowski was right about that. To make it into the NCAA Tournament, a team has to be ranked among the top seven in their region. Gannon was sitting at No. 7 all season, and going into the PSAC Tournament as well. The Knights were hoping to jump a few spots just to have a little bit of wiggle room, and they did.
After the PSAC Tournament, the final regional rankings came out and Gannon was fifth. This was a great feeling for the Knights to show that their ride was not over just yet.
They continued their successful season Friday when they took on Charleston in the first round of the NCAA Atlantic Regional tournament at California University of Pennsylvania. Gannon opened the game with a one-run lead on Rectenwald’s double to center, but the Golden Eagles fought back in the third with three runs and led 3-1.
Archambeault doubled off the left-field wall to open the Lady Knights’ last at bat in the seventh, and a two-out RBI-double in the left-center gap by Rectenwald brought in Archambeault and cut the margin to 3-2. But the Knights could not push home the tying run and fell 3-2.
Gannon will take the field again 1 p.m. Saturday during an elimination game against eighth-seed Saint Augustine’s.
The journey is not over yet, and none of the Knights want to get off this ride.
Editor’s note: Writer Alyssa Bates is a member of the Gannon softball team. The junior from Greensburg was a second-team All PSAC West selection this season.