Dartmouth Hits the Desert for NCAA Tourney
Darmouth pitcher Kristen Rumley contributed a single as well as a two-RBI double that put Darmouth ahead in the sixth inning of the Ivy League championship game against Penn at Dartmouth Softball Park in Hanover, N.H., on May 4, 2014. Dartmouth won, 7-3. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Dartmouth College catcher Alex St. Romain, shown attempting a bunt in 2013, and her teammates tackle No. 4 Arizona State today in the program's first-ever NCAA tournament game. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »
Hanover — Yea, though they walk through the Valley of the Sun with cleats on, the members of the Dartmouth College softball team fear no fastball. Not even that of Arizona State ace Dallas Escobedo.
The Big Green come face-to-face with the senior star and her Sun Devils today, when the visitors make their first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. Dartmouth earned the Ivy League’s automatic berth by knocking off Pennsylvania two weeks ago during the circuit’s title series and awaited the NCAA’s televised announcement of regional sites and teams on Sunday night.
Arizona State was seeded ninth in the tournament, but ranked No. 4 in the last national poll, which was done before conference tournament play.
“We were all excited to find out our final destination,” said fourth-year Big Green coach Rachel Hanson, whose team is joined by No. 13 Michigan and San Diego State in its double-elimination regional. “There was excitement and anticipation but no nervous tension, because we knew we were in.”
Dartmouth could have landed in places like Athens, Ga., Lafayette, La., Los Angeles or Minneapolis, but was sent to Tempe, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb and a locale where temperatures are expected to top 100 degrees this weekend. The Big Green players will be drinking plenty of fluids and draping iced towels on their necks when in the dugout, but Hanson said she’s not overly concerned.
“We haven’t seen much hot weather, but they have to play in it, too,” said the coach, whose team’s first game is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. EDT and will be nationally televised on ESPNU. “We have a lot of players from Texas, California and Florida who are used to those conditions.”
What Dartmouth is not accustomed to, however, is playing on a big-time stage with big-time programs. The toughest opponents it faced this season were the likes of James Madison, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the California-Santa Barbara. Hanson said she knows her players will need at least a short period to adjust to the setting and the opposing talent, and she isn’t pretending it won’t be a factor.
“There’s going to be adrenaline, but we want to channel it competitively,” she said. “It’s a new level, but the same game. We want to grow our program so that this is where we are on a regular basis.”
Senior catcher Alex St. Romain looked both excited and anxious when she discussed the regional after Tuesday’s practice. The Big Green bused to Boston that night, then flew to Phoenix on Wednesday, making one stop along the way.
“Last week was the first time since before the season started that we practiced without knowing who we were going to play,” St. Romain said. “It was such a waiting game. It wasn’t until Sunday that it really hit me that we were going to the NCAAs.
“This is what little girls dream about when they start playing softball, and I’m so looking forward to playing some of the best competition in the country. It’s crazy and pretty surreal.”
It’s going to get real in a hurry. Dartmouth not only faces a program that won the 2011 Women’s College World Series and is 44-10-1 this season, but has a genuine star in Escobedo. She’s a 6-foot righthander who throws nearly 70 mph. That’s from a distance of just 43 feet, meaning the Big Green hitters will have only a split second to decide where the pitch is going and whether to swing.
In February, Escobedo was the No. 1 pick in the National Pro Fastpitch League, a five-team circuit based in the Midwest. She is a two-time All-American, has a career record of 113-24 with a 1.90 ERA and 1,196 strikeouts and is considered one of the best pitchers in the sport. This season, she is 22-7 with a 1.85 ERA, 310 strikeouts and 52 walks.
To try and prepare her hitters, Hanson this week dragged out the pitching machine and cranked it to high, something St. Romain said had never been done during her time at Dartmouth.
“Coach has done a great job working to get our bat speed up,” St. Romain said. “Everyone can catch up to speed, but it’s when you start chasing pitches that you gets in trouble. We need to learn from every pitch we face.”
Said Hanson: “Escobedo is markedly faster than anyone we’ve faced, and she’s got a great rise ball. She loves to walk you up the ladder and get you to chase it. We have to wait until we get one in our wheelhouse.”
Arizona State recently lost to No. 2 UCLA during the Pac-12 Conference title series, but it went 50-12 last season and advanced to the WCWS for the seventh time in eight seasons, twice more than any other team during that time span.
Dartmouth (31-17) boasts sophomore Morgan McCalmon, the Ivy League’s player of the year and the team’s No. 2 hurler behind league pitcher of the year Kristen Rumley. McCalmon led the Big Green with a .389 batting average and was 10-5 with a 2.49 ERA. Rumley batted .303 and went 18-7 with a 1.86 ERA.
Hanson said today’s appearance on national television isn’t only a reward for a standout season, but a perk that will pay off down the road in recruiting.
“It’s going to be huge in that regard,” she said. “As the program has more success and gets seen like this, we can be in more and more conversations with some of the top players in the country. That’s already happened the last couple of years, and I have every expectation that this year will boost it again.
“Winners want to win and those are the kids we want.”
St. Romain, who was recruited by Hanson’s predecessor to a mediocre program with an unimpressive, off-campus field in West Lebanon, said she’s having a hard time fully grasping what’s transpired the past few weeks. Buzz about the softball team is at a high on campus as strangers wish the players luck as they walk to class or down Main Street.
“Even last year, when we reached the Ivy League (title series), it was hard to imagine getting to this point,” St. Romain said. “But we’ve 100 percent earned it and we have to realize this is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Notes: Hanson estimated that the fastest pitcher Dartmouth has faced was Penn’s Alexis Borden, who she guessed tops out around 63 mph. ... Dartmouth’s traveling party includes an academic advisor to help the players with any school-related issues. … Escobedo has been profiled in ESPNW Magazine . … First-year Sun Devils coach Craig Nicholson came from Ball State to succeed Clint Meyers, who moved on to Auburn. … ASU returned eight of nine defensive starters from last year’s team and played its first 24 games this season at home. … The Sun Devils average 1,300 fans per home contest. Dartmouth’s stadium seats 400.
Tris Wykes can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3227.