Located in Kissimmee about half of an hour south of Orlando, the Games are a 22-day-long series of Division One, Two and Three softball competition which kicks off March 1.,First thing Friday morning, 20 Emerson softball players and Head Coach Phil McElroy will fly out of Boston to Orlando, Fla., where the team will enjoy sunny skies, warmer weather and nine days of high-caliber competition at the Rebel Spring Games.
Located in Kissimmee about half of an hour south of Orlando, the Games are a 22-day-long series of Division One, Two and Three softball competition which kicks off March 1. Out of 10 games, Emerson will face four nationally-ranked teams in Division Three's Top 25, McElroy said,
"It's the toughest competition, I believe, Division Three-wise, that's offered," said McElroy, now in his seventh year of coaching at Emerson. "You go down to win, but you also need to consider that what we prepare for is the conference. Some of the pitching that we'll see in Florida will be really challenging."
This will be the team's first time playing in Kissimmee, but not in Florida. Last year, the Lions traveled further south to a tournament in Cape Coral, near Fort Myers, and won seven of 10 games. McElroy said he chose the Rebel Games for its higher level of competition which will help prepare his team for the season.
Last year's team made program history, winning the Great Northeast Athletic Conference and advancing to the NCAA Division Three Tournament. The team also earned the highest collective grade point average for Division Three in the nation, with a 3.548/4.0 average.
"Our goals are pretty lofty," McElroy said. "The team would think that if we didn't reach the NCAA Tournament, we didn't reach our goal."
He said the Lions' objectives include making the tournament and ranking in the top four, which would mean a first-round bye. He also said he hopes to find whatever "magic" carried them last year.
The team's play in Florida should work out some kinks and help determine who should play where. The trip also builds chemistry among players, McElroy said.
"We go down there to win games first and foremost," said senior captain and second baseman Katie Hartman. "It's not like we do group bonding things where we braid hair and talk about boys."
Following spring-break softball, Emerson's first conference competition is scheduled for Sat. March 22, a double-header at home against Mount Ida College, which, along with Lasell College, is new to the league.
"The thing about us is we're not going to surprise anyone anymore," said Hartman, a film major. "We're not going to take anyone for granted either . that's just the way our team is."
With Western New England College switching to the more competitive Commonwealth Coast Conference, Emerson stands as one of the top GNAC contenders. Hartman said the team's away game at Rivier College in Nashua, N.H. should be a battle since the Raiders beat them twice last year. Emmanuel College will also be a rival-former Emerson assistant coach Michelle Morales left Emerson last year to become the head coach for the Saints.
Since the start of the semester, the Lions have been practicing six days a week and have played five scrimmages, facing the University of Maine and Wellesley College twice each and Lesley University once. The games were not scored but played out as practice situations, such as starting with a runner on second.
"We've done really well," Hartman said. "We had a little bit of trouble hitting against UMaine, but that's a Division 1 school. We did a really good job hanging in there. Our pitchers were phenomenal."
McElroy said "hot" pitching carries teams in the NCAA tournament, and while three of Emerson's four pitchers this year are freshmen, he is especially confident in junior Angela Jorgensen.
Out of about a dozen returning players, six are crucial field players, McElroy said. Seven newcomers are recruited freshmen.
"There's still some decisions to be made about who's playing where," he said. "We have a lot of people capable of doing a lot of things, but can we get them all on the field?"
Junior shortstop Catie McDonough said all of the freshmen are "gelling" with the upperclassmen, and the team chemistry is already developing.
"Anybody could be a starter," said McDonough, a print journalism major. "We just have talent all the way through our roster."
With recruits from all over the country, including California, Nevada and Florida, McElroy said this year's team has more skill and strength than ever. Previously a slapping/bunting team that excelled with a short-game style, Emerson softball this year will be about power hitting, he said.
"The key is going to be our hitting and our pitching," McElroy said. "[We'll try to be] keeping walks low and throwing strikes."
As for high GPA's and best-ever records, McElroy said he holds high standards for his team, on and off the field, but does not set concrete expectations.
"We don't need to repeat GPA's or repeat championships," he said.
But deep down, the team knows what it wants.
"We're really working toward being one of the most competitive teams in the country," McDonough said. "That's really what we want to be and what we want to strive toward."