April 26, 2000
Chestnut Hill, Mass. -
If someone had told Boston College softball coach Jennifer Finley a year ago that she would have to go through this season without the services of three-time All-BIG EAST pitcher Mary Dietz and 1998 BIG EAST Rookie of the Year Jennifer Perrotta, she may have considered skipping town before the season started.
"I would have had to think about it," Finley said, laughing.
The Eagles' skipper can laugh about things now. Boston College, who was second in the BIG EAST preseason poll, is currently sitting in the number two spot despite not having Dietz or Perrotta in the lineup - thanks in large part to an outstanding trio of freshmen that has made more of an immediate impact than even Finley could have imagined.
After the 35 games played before the Easter break, both of Boston College's top two hitters were freshmen - second baseman Jen Asbury (.355) and shortstop Cara Blumfield (.318). On the mound, it has been another wunderkind, Kim Ryan (12-7, 1.15 ERA, 159 K) who has stepped into the void left by the absence of Dietz.
"I really didn't expect them to be this strong," says Finley. "We needed a shortstop, so we knew Cara would make an impact right away. With Kim, we knew she'd be good, but we didn't think we'd have to put her in this position. Jen has just kind of plugged along and worked hard. She just does what she has to do."
The early success has certainly come as a bit of a surprise to the players as well. All three knew they would have a chance to contribute, but none of them expected to make this big of a splash right away.
"She told me before that I would have an opportunity to earn a spot," says Asbury, who has started all but two games at second base this season. "I was a little surprised. I knew I could probably play, but I was surprised to be starting every game."
Ryan was even more surprised, having gone through the fall under the impression that she would have a chance to be the number two starter behind Dietz. When the word came that the Eagles' ace would not be playing in the spring, however, her mindset quickly changed.
"As soon as I heard Mary wasn't playing, I had to focus a lot more," says Ryan. "I had to keep telling myself I had to forget I was a freshman. I was expecting to have a year to get used to pitching at this level, but I'm definitely excited to get the chance. I don't mind at all."
Neither do her teammates. While all of the Eagles have stepped up to fill holes, Finley says that without Ryan's efforts, Boston College would be hosting the BIG EAST Tournament next weekend, but probably not participating on the field.
"If Kim didn't work as hard as she did," says Finley, "we wouldn't be close to where we are. Kim has been dominating. She's pitched a lot of innings."
The coach then added with a grin, "We just can't let her head get too big."
That shouldn't be a problem, thanks in large part to the presence of senior captain Lauren Fischetti. In addition to splitting the pitching duties, Ryan and Fischetti also share another common bond - the two were high school teammates at Bay Shore High School in New York.
"Lauren's always been someone I could look up to," says Ryan. "When she was a senior in high school it was the same way. She's always been there for encouragement and support."
Fischetti was also a major factor in Ryan's decision to come to Boston College. As a three-time All-American, Ryan essentially had her choice when it came to selecting a school, but Chestnut Hill seemed like the best fit.
"I talked to my high school coach (Jim McGowan), and I talked to Lauren. I knew she was happy here. I knew it was a good school with good softball. It just came down to a good mix of academics and athletics. I had a good time on my visit. I got along well with the girls."
The campus visits went equally well for Blumfield and Asbury, a highly-touted duo from California.
"Kim and Cara both signed early," says Finley, "but Jen (who was also being courted by several Big Ten schools) was more the luck of the draw. She had a great visit. All three were very highly recruited."
"I chose the school for the education," Asbury says. "I wanted to get away from home a little. I had never been east before. I came and saw the school, and I really enjoyed the visit."
Blumfield, who didn't know Asbury before coming to Boston, says she hadn't planned on coming so far east.
"I kind of wanted to stay home, but I was willing to go anywhere," she says. "I wanted a good school with a good education, a chance to start for four years and graduate in four years."
All three appear to be getting that same chance - and the play of the three All-Rookie candidates, coupled with the emergence of classmate Lisa Fischer and the potential shown by fellow freshman Allison Erbig - has led Finley to make some pretty bold statements regarding this class.
"The current senior class (which includes Fischetti, Dietz, and Chris Vicari, among others) was considered one of my better recruiting classes," she says, "but this class is by far the best overall in terms of making an impact right away.
"As long as we don't let their heads get too big, they could be the new dynasty. They could take this team to unbelievable levels. As long as they keep working and fine tune some of their weaknesses, they're going to be unbelievable. They're getting the experience of a lifetime right now."
That experience was a bit rough from the outset, as the Eagles got off to an 0-7 start against some of the nation's toughest competition. Most young teams would have been discouraged, but not this group.
"It wasn't as discouraging to us as it might have seemed," says Ryan, who started the season with an 0-5 record. "We were playing so competitively against such good teams. We just took it as incentive to work harder."
Could the slow start - and the 10 one-run losses the Eagles have suffered this season - be chalked up to inexperience? Not according to their coach.
"I don't think it had anything to do with them being young," says Finley. "They were actually the ones carrying the team for a while. They were inexperienced, but they were the ones carrying the team. Eventually, the upperclassmen started picking it up and everything jelled."
And things seem to be coming together at the perfect time. With one week remaining before the conference tournament, the Eagles know that they still have a chance to reach all of their preseason goals - winning the BIG EAST and making some noise nationally.
Everything seems to have worked out perfectly for Boston College's fantastic freshmen - except for one minor detail.
"Don't ask the California kids about the weather," says Finley.
Indeed, the question set off a long series of groans from Asbury and Blumfield.
"I've never worn pants this much in my life," says Asbury.
Still, the weather hasn't been too much of a deterrent. With California natives Summer Jarratt, Cristin Brown, Gretchen Thompson and Brooke Shull already on the roster - and one of Blumfield's high school teammates on the way next season - Finley seems to have developed quite a pipeline from the west coast.
"For some reason, BC attracts kids from California," the coach says.
Talented ones, too. Should Asbury and Blumfield make the BIG EAST All-Rookie Team (which is a fairly safe bet at this point), they will join fellow Golden Staters Jarratt and Brown on the growing list of Eagles to earn that honor.
The baptism-by-fire of Asbury, Blumfield, and Ryan has been made much easier by the fact that all three have gone through it together.
"We kind of bounce off each other," says Blumfield. "We're all in the same spot. If one of us makes a mistake, we just have to remind ourselves that we're still young."
"It's been a lot of fun," adds Asbury. "I never felt like a freshman out there. It's been great playing with them."
That relationship extends off the field as well.
"The five of us (freshmen) are all very close," Ryan says. "We're constantly talking about softball. We stress every detail. It makes it easier out there to look around and know you're not the only freshman. It's helped us become closer because we do have a lot of pressure."
They have delivered under that pressure - but the ride is far from over.
"I just wanted to do my part," says Asbury. "I never expected this. But I try not to think about it. I just want to go out and win and progress as a team."
With Asbury, Blumfield and Ryan leading the way, there's no limit to just how far the Eagles will progress this season and beyond.