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SMC Softball: Sullivan sparks Saint Mary’s rapid turnaround

Tim Dougherty | Friday, May 19, 2006

What a difference a coach makes.

The entire Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s student bodies learned that lesson watching football games last fall. This spring, the Saint Mary’s softball team experienced the knowledge firsthand.

After suffering through a turbulent 7-23 (2-14 MIAA) 2005 campaign with first-year head coach Kristi Beechy, the Belles found 2004 alumnus Erin Sullivan to take over a team that she had captained to a conference tournament championship two years earlier as a player with a league-best .455 batting average.

Sullivan found her groove as a coach in her first year at the helm, leading the Belles to school-record marks at 28-13 overall and 11-5 in the MIAA, as the squad earned a third-place regular season conference finish.

The Belles were led by freshman phenom pitcher Kristen Amram, who went 15-2 in 22 appearances with a 1.08 ERA. Amram fanned 201 batters in 123 1/3 innings and yielded 20 walks, with 16 complete games and seven shutouts in her 19 starts. Already named league MVP and first-team Central Region selection, she awaits possible national recognition later in May.

Saint Mary’s started its season with a customary weeklong trip to Florida, where the Belles played double-headers every day for five straight days and finished 7-3 with three one-run losses.

By the end of the trip, Sullivan said she felt she had a squad that could make a run at the conference title.

“I knew then that we were going to be good, which we were,” Sullivan said.

The Belles opened the MIAA schedule with two shutout victories over Adrian College, before their performance peaked taking three out of four against the top two league finishers No. 24 Hope 2-5, 1-0 and Alma 9-1, 8-0.

The wins over Alma were the high point in the Belles’ season as they dominated the MIAA powerhouse who had won the conference championship the last eight years.

“Slaughtering them the way we did both games was huge,” Sullivan said. “That really got the confidence in our game up.”

The Belles rode that confidence and a six-game league winning streak on the road for two MIAA double dips. Saint Mary’s finally faltered as it dropped doubleheaders at middle-of-the-pack MIAA foe Albion 3-0 and 6-2.

The Belles’ toughened up on the road against Kalamazoo to close off the conference season with two victories running their record to the school-best 11-5 MIAA mark to take the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, which the Belles missed in 2005.

“The motivation of making the tournament has really been carrying us through,” Grall said before the Kalamazoo game.

The Belles appeared to have the ship righted for the four-team conference tournament as they knocked off No. 2-seed Alma for the third time this year in a 3-2 pincher on May 5.

In the second game of the double-elimination tournament, Saint Mary’s fell the next day to regular season and eventual tournament champions Hope 5-2. After three innings of shutout softball by Amram, when the second-team all-MIAA Grall entered, the Belles defense could not hold on to the 1-0 lead, as Grall surrendered four unearned runs, before Davidson gave up another run in the seventh.

The Belles turned right around that day to again face Alma who stayed alive in the loser’s bracket. After surrendering one hit in four innings, Grall was pulled in the fifth after giving up one unearned run and leaving runners on first and second.

Amram got out of the jam, but walked two early batters in the sixth that led to a three-run Alma inning to put Saint Mary’s down 4-0.

The Belles finally put two runners across the plate in the seventh with two more waiting on the bases, but the rally ended when first-team all-MIAA shortstop – and potential winning run – Sarah Miesle grounded out to the pitcher to end the game.

A win would have forced Saint Mary’s to return the next day to win both games of a doubleheader against Hope clinch the conference tournament championship – which automatically qualifies the winner for the national tournament.

The season still ended as statistically the most successful in Saint Mary’s history.

“Everyone’s general attitude improved a lot,” Sullivan said. “It was hard last year because everyone got complacent to losing, but this year we weren’t going to accept that.”

The attitudes of second team all-MIAA Grall and co-captain Audrey Gajor were essential, according to Sullivan, to helping her instill confidence to the rest of the team.

“They were excellent captains. They did everything the right way, did the stuff no one else wanted to do,” Sullivan said. “They came in expecting to have the best years of their career. I’m really going to miss them as leaders.”