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  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^Rivier College's Ashley Metivier of Hudson fields a hit in a recent game against Saint Joseph College of Connecticut.
  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^RIvier's Taylor Cournoyer gets the throw to tag out Stephanie Valerio of Saint Joseph College of Connecticut in a recent game in Nashua.
  • Photo by Jodie Andruskevich^^Rivier College's standout pitcher, Monica White of Augusta, Maine in action against Saint Joseph College of Connecticut.
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Rivier softball gaining some national attention

NASHUA – The chatter is lively, and the huddles are even livelier. And they usually end with a definitive reminder from head coach Kelly O’Connell that her team echoes when the huddle breaks.

Not done yet. No, not until they win a Great Northeast Athletic Conference title and the automatic NCAA Division III tourney berth that goes with it, their second of both in three years. Despite a roster that has nine – yes nine – freshmen on it, this is arguably the best Rivier College squad ever, winners of an astounding 21 in a row since losing to Susquehanna University (Selinsgrove, Pa.) in the second game of a season-opening spring break trip to Orlando, Fla.

They’ve been ranked as high as ninth in New England in Division III, and in the astounding words of athletic director Joanne Merrill, who always tempers her remarks, “They’ve been dominant.”

And it’s a better team than the won that captured the GNAC two years ago and made the NCAA tourney for the first time in school history.

“I honestly think we’re the best softball team in New England,” O’Connell said. “We think we’re going to win, we do the work to win. Then we show up, and some days are better than others, but we rise to the challenge.”

O’Connell was the first to rise to that challenge. The team floundered in 2009, finishing 16-14 in the regular season and failing to advance in the conference tourney. She went gangbusters in recruiting, bringing in almost an entire team worth of freshmen.

“The coaching staff, we really don’t like losing,” O’Connell said. “We had a down year last year, we really under-performed. So I think the best way to respond to that is to go out and recruit. We had a huge recruiting class, and it wasn’t just numbers but talent. Our freshmen are some of the best players in the conference, which bodes well for the future.”

The Raiders’ top hitter is freshman shortstop Taylor Cournoyer, who hails from Mansfield, Mass., and was hitting an astounding .530 on the year at last look and was recently named GNAC Rookie of the Week for the second time. Another freshman, Katie Bachinski, leads the team in homers with seven and RBIs with 30, and has also won ROW honors.

So how does a team so young, with only four seniors and one junior, play so well? It’s almost easy when one of those seniors is pitcher Monica White, who has simply saved her best for last. At last look she had given up just five earned runs in 113 innings for a 0.31 earned run average, striking out 192. She’s been GNAC Pitcher of the Week four times (including this past week) and ECAC Pitcher of the Week once, and has been leading the conference in at least five categories (wins, strikeouts, ERA, opponents BA, and innings pitched) She’s also no slouch at the plate, a .346 hitter with three homers and 21 RBIs.

What does O’Connell sense from her?

“The end,” the coach said. “She wants to go out on top. She had a great basketball year, and I think she took that momentum into softball. She’s really committed to getting stronger physically. She’s always been mentally tough. But physically she’s gotten stronger and that’s helped her performance on the mound.”

White said she spent some extra time in the weight room during the off-season.

“It would be nice to end on a good note,” she said. “I lifted more, and threw more in the off-season on my own. There was a little bit of pushing from (O’Connell), but I definitely wanted to do it for myself.”

What is different about this team from the other three White has been a mainstay of?

“There’s a lot of talent on this team, top to bottom,” she said. “We come into every game, every practice, and we just set the bar higher for ourselves, I think.” O’Connell isn’t surprised. She knew the Raiders could be this good months ago, during an unusually intense fall ball season.

“We wanted to set the tone,” she said. “We went up to Elms (College in Chicopee, Mass.) for a two-game play day and blew everybody out of the water. From that moment on, we knew we had something special. Beyond that, these kids are in the gym more this year than the four years I’ve been here combined. They’re lifting, they’re hitting, they’re doing the work on their own time, which makes my job really easy.”

The players say that’s exactly how they want it.

“We work hard,” freshman multi-position player Katie Bachinski, out of Northfield, Mass., said. “Hard work pays off. The old saying, hard work goes a long way. We give the hard work in practice and the way we practice translates to games. We also do a lot of work off by ourselves. After practice we get in the cage and hit. It just pays off in the long run.”

White was astounded when she heard the majority of the team would be freshmen. She wondered if they were going to be ready for the intensity and all that O’Connell would demand.

“But they’ve definitely stepped up to the task, they’ve really surprised me,” she said. “They have so much talent. They’re going to go far.”

“It’s interesting, half our team is freshmen,” Cournoyer said. “But you wouldn’t know it by watching us play – or by playing against us.”

It’s possible that the Raiders, if they don’t win the conference, could receive an at-large bid. Friday’s opponent before rain postponed things, St. Joe’s of Maine, will be the Raiders’ main obstacle to a conference title, as the double elimination portion of the GNAC tourney begins next Friday.

“Right now, we’re being noticed both locally and regionally,” O’Connell said. “One through nine, we can do damage. I’ve seen a lot of softball this year. I don’t know if we have the depth at the pitching that we would want, but you put Monica White against any other pitcher in New England, with our team …”

And the feeling is the Raiders still wouldn’t be done yet. But close.

“We’re enjoying the ride,” Cournoyer said, “but we’re doing it a good way.”