The Fairfield University softball team missed out on much of their season last year, but finally was able to hit this field again this past weekend on March 20. They took down the Manhattan College Jaspers in three of this weekend’s four contests, proving that the team is off to a great start. Five student-athletes will graduate this year, including seniors Sam Merino, Lauryn Rhinehart, Mikayla Rubin and Drew Westford, as well as graduate student Lacey Olaff. The Mirror was able to get their take on how they’re feeling on their final leg of their Fairfield experience.
- Do you feel that your experience on the team pre-COVID-19 has helped you get through this past year, with the abrupt end to last season and the intermittent pauses in athletic practice and competition?
S.M.: Yes, I do think prior experience has helped us deal with the adversity during this past year. The fall season was especially hard on all of us. We were very excited to be back but nothing was normal. We didn’t have our usual weekend of games and couldn’t do our typical team bonding like we used to because the group size was too big. In addition, we barely had full team practices because in the beginning it was only small groups, and then we had a handful of pauses. It was challenging to stay motivated and practice on your own with all of these pauses, but us upperclassmen were able to find creative ways through Peloton apps and doing our past conditioning workouts to stay in shape. We shared these ideas with the rest of the team to help them stay motivated throughout the adversity.
L.O.: Reminiscing the softball team experience pre-COVID-19 has definitely helped us get through the tough times, it’s acted as the “light at the end of the tunnel.” There are days where the practices feel never ending, or just feel like all you’re doing is practicing. But, then you remember that things can get taken away so quickly again, so you learn to appreciate everything so much more. We learned last year to never take things for granted, because our softball season got taken away so quickly. So yes, looking back on softball pre-COVID-19 has definitely helped us remember why we do what we do.
L.R.: The pauses in practicing and irregularity of knowing if we would have practice or even be allowed on campus the next day was so difficult. The softball team is so close and we all hang out together constantly but with not being able to do that as much this year it has been more difficult to see everyone as much. Thankfully we have a strong core group of returning players that has helped the team as a whole stay positive and be able to be there for each other even more this year with everything changing day to day. In terms of softball experience I am thankful that I know what it is like to compete at the Division I level without having to worry about COVID all the time, which I think has helped our senior class to keep the underclassmen focused and wanting to do everything right to be able to play and get back to normalcy.
M.R.: I think that having two full seasons under my belt has been very helpful because I know what it takes to play a full season. Many of our younger players haven’t experienced that yet so it is good to let them know how it works.
D.W.: I honestly don’t think anything could have helped me prepare for something like this to happen. It feels like I have dedicated my life to softball and having it ripped out from under me was something I never expected or could have seen coming. You always think something like an injury could possibly end your athletic career, but with an injury, there’s usually an estimated timeline of when you can return to the field, but with the pandemic, there was no end in sight for a while. Last spring, our team went through the possibility of “maybe we just played our last game ever.” It was scary, but I couldn’t have asked for better teammates to go through something like that with. My team is the main reason why I was able to make it through all the uncertainty and pauses, they always had my back.
- How has your role on the team changed since you’ve become seniors?
S.M.: As a senior, I feel that I have grown more into a leadership role. I have always been a very vocal player. You can always see me cheering on the top of my lungs supporting my teammates. But now, I realize that my words have much more of an impact than just screaming when the pitcher gets a strikeout, or someone hits an RBI. The underclassmen look up to us and really take in our words and actions. Leading by example is one thing, but now I try to help my teammates in more ways that will benefit them. I look for ways to give feedback to my teammates to improve their game because I want to push them to achieve greater in their careers like the upperclassmen did to me when I was a freshman.
L.O.: My role on the team actually hasn’t changed too much over the past year. I was a senior last year and obviously that got cut short. Therefore, when the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] granted us all an extra year of eligibility, I took advantage of it and I’m now a graduate student on the team. It feels like I’m getting a redo of my senior year. I’ve played softball my entire life and finishing out my career on my own terms was a must for me.
L.R.: Learning to adapt has been the biggest part of this year and has forced everyone to change their mindset to making everyday count. Our senior class has always been a really strong class since our freshman year and we each play different positions so I think that we have all learned to be a leader for that position. Specifically for me I am the only senior pitcher on the team and only one other pitcher has ever thrown against MAAC [Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference] teams so I have been trying to lead by example and do my best to command the mound. We have focused so much in practice on having command over each pitch and once the younger girls get the experience that they were deprived of, I know that they are going to do great.
M.R.: I’ve grown into a leadership role this year. I was always vocal on the field, but now I am more vocal off of the field as well. I feel more responsible for making sure that we do things the right way as a team. I also think it’s very important to lead by example when you are a senior by continuing to work hard.
D.W.: Being a senior has no doubt put us all in leadership roles on the team. It is our job to set the example for our younger teammates and make sure they understand what it means to play softball at Fairfield. I am grateful to have Sam, Lauryn and Mikayla by my side and we all bring something so unique to the team and all lead in different ways. We get along very well, and they are family to me. They are my best friends, teammates, roommates and we have been through quite the journey over the past three and a half years and we have all grown into our own leadership roles.
- The schedule is packed with double-headers, to decrease travel and exposure to many different teams in a short period of time. Do you find that this format works better for you, or do you prefer to play single games over a longer span of time?
S.M.: Double-headers can be extremely long games, but honestly that usually is how a softball season goes. Although it’s been a while since we played so many double-headers, it is really all we know in a college schedule. I think it would be interesting to try out single games over a longer span of time one season to see if that aids in recovery. I know some schools play a series with a team so they play one game for three days and see who takes that win, but we typically would only play a team twice for a day. Even when we travel to other states and do tournaments, we usually end up playing double headers for two out of the three days. I honestly just miss the traveling part but I understand that it is a risk for exposure.
L.O.: Thankfully as a team we’re used to playing double headers so I don’t think that will [be] that much of a challenge for us. But, I do believe that playing the same team four times in a weekend will take some adjusting, as we’re used to playing two double headers, just against two different teams. But, at the end of the day we’re all just excited to be out there and playing against anyone that isn’t our own team. The intensity of playing only conference games is also going to be new for us, but also makes it all that much more exciting.
L.R.: We normally have Saturday and Sunday double headers in a regular year, but it is more difficult that we are going straight into the MAAC season without having a preseason to get into “game shape”. Also the shortened amount of time to play the same number of games will be something that will test my stamina as a pitcher without having as much rest some weeks.
M.R.: We typically play double headers in a normal season, but I think the added mid-week double header will challenge our conditioning as a team. It’s something we have been preparing for both in practice and in strength and conditioning.
D.W.: Actually, the schedule this year isn’t much different from past years. We are used to playing double headers on both Saturdays and Sundays with mid-week games thrown in there too. The biggest difference is only being able to play other MAAC teams. Usually, we get to play out of conference teams before the season starts and in between weekends, but this year we just play every MAAC team four times instead. The season can be a grind, but it goes by so fast and then you just want to get back on the field again once it is over!
- What can you say about your fellow senior teammates and how you’ve grown together throughout your Fairfield career?
S.M.: I think it is crazy to see how much we have grown on and off the field through four years. I think the girls in my class are fantastic players and it is cool to see how much we have improved and accomplished in our college careers. I am very excited to see how we all do this year and I hope that we just go out there and have fun. I know everyone in athletics feels like the pandemic stole a year of their career. It is unfortunate that we couldn’t see how our junior year could have panned out. But, after that, we are now a million times more grateful to be playing and actually having a spring schedule. We are playing with a priority of having fun because we know what it is like to have the game taken away from us. This positive attitude was able to help us go 3-1 against Manhattan last weekend so I hope we can continue with that mindset.
L.O.: There’s simply no other group of girls that I would want to finish my career out with. They bring so much to the table not only with how talented they are on the field, but just the people they are off the field. I’ve had the opportunity to watch them grow into their own since they came in as freshmen and I knew from the beginning that this softball program was going to be in great hands when it was their time to lead the way. They motivate and inspire everyone around them to be and do their best every day and it’s something that is contagious to everyone around.
L.R.: Sam, Drew, Mikayla and I have always been super close since we got to school. We’ve lived together, go to dinner together and hang out all the time. I think because of this it is easy to grow together through the years and have the same drive to make each other and people around us better everyday. We have been through a lot like having a season cancelled which has just made us be there for one another more. It is never a competition that someone is doing worse than you, but instead we push one another to work harder to be the best player possible.
M.R.: When you come in as a freshman, the people in your class are your first friends. We share the experience of being freshmen together. We spend so much time together and I am truly grateful to call these girls my best friends. It’s easy to relate to people that are sharing the exact same experience that you do. We support each other through everything on and off the field.
D.W.: Like I mentioned before, I consider Lauryn, Sam and Mikayla family. We always got along since the moment we first met and our dynamic is still the same today. Honestly, after four years, that usually isn’t the case, but us four have stuck together since the beginning and I am beyond lucky that they are my fellow senior teammates and I have been able to experience all the ups and downs of college and sports with them.
- How do you feel about the start of the season thus far? What goals do you look to accomplish during your senior season?
S.M.: This weekend against Manhattan was extremely fun. We were screaming at the top of our lungs for the tiniest wins – a swing and a miss from our opponent and when we got walked. The energy was electric and you could tell that we were extremely elated to be back and playing a real game. It had been over a year since we had our last game of the Spring 2020 season, and we have been anticipating this weekend. I have always had the goal of winning the MAAC and going to the NCAA tournament. We were so close our freshman year with losing in the championship game, and ever since then I have been so hungry for a MAAC title. Besides that final goal, I just want to have fun and make the most of my time this year. It is my senior season and I want to look back and these times and remember how I gave it my all and had a blast. Playing a sport in college is basically working a full time job. It is physically and mentally demanding, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. When I look back at my college years, softball will always be on the forefront of my memories. I am hoping this year will be special with a MAAC title, but either way, I want to play hard everyday until I can’t play anymore!
L.O.: Every year there’s always the jitters that are a mix of both anxiousness and excitement before opening weekend approaches and this they were definitely at an all-time high. Going 3-1 this weekend was a great start for us. This team has so much potential and I am so excited to see what is in store for us this season!
L.R.: I am really excited about the start of the season so far, as I mentioned before having a team that gets along so well is so rare but it makes it so much easier to show up and have fun everyday. We have an abnormal amount of energy all around that is infectious and will keep us all going through the next six weeks. We all have a goal to win the MAAC and to do that just focus on winning one game at a time. It won’t be easy playing every team four times, but we’re very fortunate that we have six great pitchers and other teams have only seen two of us. I hope that I can keep improving from years past and keep hitters off balance in the circle.
M.R.: I am very excited about the start of our season. To be back on the field playing games has been our goal for a long time. Now our goal has shifted to one thing and that is to win the MAAC Championship. We have been working hard and are ready to make a push for the title.
D.W.: So, this past weekend we opened up against Manhattan and we went 3-1. We had a great start and played very well, but that didn’t surprise me. We have put in a lot of hard work over the past few months and it’s paying off. Our pitchers were phenomenal, our defense was in sync, and our offence was on fire! Our team puts an emphasis on the fact that it takes all 20 girls to win, so even if someone doesn’t get to play that day or maybe they only get one at-bat, they are contributing, and we would not be able to win without all 20 of us. Our goal for the season is of course to make the MAAC tournament and win it, which is a little more difficult than in years past because only four teams make the 2021 tournament instead of the usual six. But, more importantly, we have an everyday team goal that is to get one percent better every day. Every day that we practice, the goal for all of us is to be able to say we left practice one percent better than when we showed up. It helps keep us focused on the small, important things and not become so overwhelmed with a 40+ game season. But yes, ultimately the goal is to finish the season with a big MAAC ring on our finger!
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