A year after missing the America East tournament, the Binghamton softball team set lofty expectations for itself.
“Our goal this year is to actually win the America East tournament,” said Jessica Phillips, senior outfielder and former America East Co-Player of the Year. “We have set very high standards for ourselves this year, and we are working really hard both physically, mentally — in every aspect of the game — to achieve those goals. We have the new stadium. We’re hoping to host [the championship].”
The Bearcats, who posted a 7-11 conference mark last year, were picked by America East coaches to finish fourth in 2013, according to Monday’s preseason poll. That standing would earn Binghamton a spot in the four-team conference tournament — even the fifth-place team can potentially reach the postseason this year, as the conference banned Boston University from its tournament — but to play host, the Bearcats would need to be the highest remaining seed.
Despite last year’s results, head coach Michelle Burrell was confident that her team will make the NCAA tournament at Tuesday’s media day. The Bearcats returned a solid core, including Phillips, junior third baseman Mikala King and junior shortstop Jessica Bump, and Burrell added seven freshmen to the mix this offseason.
Burrell said she expects freshmen Tiffany McIntosh and Lisa Cadogan to hit in the middle of the lineup, which will afford her more flexibility with Phillips’ spot in the order. After sharing the conference’s Player of the Year award as a sophomore, Phillips found opposing pitchers prudently locating their pitches last season, and her production dropped.
“I felt like I did not get pitched to as much as I would have liked,” Phillips said. “I had to adjust and try to find when the pitchers missed their pitches, or when I was in deeper counts, I had to work to keep battling to find a good one … It was a little bit different, and I just had to relax a little bit more.”
Burrell frequently shifted Phillips between the No. 1 and No. 3 holes in the lineup, but with the arrivals of McIntosh and Cadogan, she said she would consider hitting Phillips later to provide more run-producing at-bats. If McIntosh and Cadogan reach base, pitchers won’t pitch around Phillips as frequently.
“I think offensively we’re a lot stronger than we have been, and I think that [says] a lot about our freshman class, too,” King said. “I think we have a really deep team, and anybody has the opportunity to be a hero in a game.”
Last year, Binghamton had a penchant for falling behind early — opponents outscored the Bearcats 50-19 in the first inning — and never won in 22 tries when trailing after the sixth inning. The defense broke down in several instances, allowing opponents to add to leads, while the offense couldn’t string together enough hits in other instances.
Burrell frequently said last year that her players put pressure on themselves, something she thinks stemmed from expectations of returning to the conference tournament.
“I think one of the things we came across last year was we were playing with expectations to get back,” she said. “We’re looking to stay relaxed this year and really just treat every game like it’s a conference game. That way when we start to get into the conference we’ll be a little better prepared at staying nice and relaxed.”
Before conference play begins on March 30, however, the Bearcats are scheduled to participate in five tournaments in states ranging from Florida to Arizona to Virginia. They’re set to open their season Feb. 15 against UConn at Florida International’s Blue and Gold Felsberg Memorial Tournament.
For the Bearcats, playing in the warm southern weather provides an opportunity to see live action for the first time, as they have been confined to the Events Center and West Gym due to Binghamton’s frigid temperatures.
“I’m excited to get out of the snow,” King said. “It’s hard when we’re [in Binghamton] because we obviously have that beautiful field out there and we can’t play on it because it’s covered in snow … I think we have a huge advantage by having the resources to go play in those preseason tournaments, and I’m confident they’ll prepare us for the America East.”
Binghamton will be playing its home games on a brand new field this year following an offseason of construction.
First pitch of Binghamton’s season is set for at 11 a.m. on Feb. 15 at Florida International.