By Brian Bennett
It’s almost unthinkable to imagine that an 18-game winning streak could sneak up on a team. But when it happens over the space of 20 days, as it did with the Geneseo softball team this spring, perhaps it is believable.
With rainy spring weather causing havoc with the schedule, head coach Dave Sylvester’s team played 27 games in the month of April. With such a compressed slate, the number of consecutive wins grew at a rapid rate. And while such a record-breaking performance would suggest consistent dominance, a good number of victories required comebacks and featured clutch plays in critical situations, many in games that went beyond the regulation seven innings.
“This team came to realize that they had to compete the entire game and most importantly, had made a commitment to do so,” remembered Sylvester. “This mindset would be the difference maker for the season, as we would continue to come from behind, and continue to win the extra-inning games.”
The winning streak helped drive the 2015 Geneseo softball team to a 28-12 record, its best record since 2003, and within a win of a SUNYAC Championship. The Knights also climbed as high as eighth in the Northeast Region rankings, earning strong consideration for an at-large NCAA bid.
Yet there were few hints in the season’s first days that such a performance was in the offing. The season began with the traditional spring trip to Florida, a welcome opportunity for a team that found itself practicing in Geneseo’s parking lots due to poor field conditions caused by the long and unforgiving winter.
The Knights played nine games in seven days at the Dot Richardson Classic, including two against nationally-ranked Luther (Iowa). Heading into their last two contests, the Knights were 1-6, with Sylvester needing to remind his team that historically, wins were hard-earned in Florida. Junior Mikayla Moore and senior Corrin Spallone each tossed shutouts on the final day, Spallone’s a no-hitter, to send the team north on a high note.
Momentum, however, was stalled in Geneseo’s April 1 SUNYAC opener against Fredonia. The Knights were up by four runs in the first game and had a five-run lead in the second, but lost both in the final at-bat to the host Blue Devils.
A home doubleheader split against perennial SUNYAC power Cortland was earned the next day and in most cases that would be a satisfactory result, yet the second-game loss was made more painful by the Red Dragons scoring four runs in their last at-bat to win 4-2. Thirteen games into their season, the Knights stood at 4-9 and 1-3 in the SUNYAC, with every conference loss coming despite taking a lead into the final inning. Yet instead of demoralizing the team, Sylvester feels that the defeats, especially those against Fredonia, taught his players a valuable lesson.
“It is tough to say you learn from your losses but this team did. Against Fredonia we made one mistake in our first game and one mistake in the second game and both were on plays that would have been third outs and led to multiple runs scored against us. It was upsetting to the ladies at the time but a blessing in disguise. We learned something about ourselves and what we had to do to be successful.”
The streak began on April 3. After spotting visiting Oswego a 3-0 lead in the first inning, the Knights captured the opener in five innings, 11-3. The second game went in similar fashion. Down 3-1, Geneseo put up five runs in both the fifth and sixth innings to close out the game 11-3.
After two home wins against non-conference opponent Keuka, the Knights had a memorable doubleheader at Vic Raschi Field on April 11 against SUNYAC-rival Brockport. Geneseo had an early 6-3 lead in the opener, but the Golden Eagles tied the contest and went ahead by a run in the late innings. The Knights tied it in the bottom of the sixth to send the game into extra frames and in the ninth, first-year Emily Martin drove in the winning run with a two-out single.
If possible, the second game featured more drama. The Knights took a 4-1 lead into the seventh inning only to see the visitors push across three runs to tie the game. The Golden Eagles plated a run in the top of the eighth and had the Knights down to their last out when sophomore Abby Dennett’s pinch-hit single scored the equalizer. In the ninth, Martin once again drove in the winning run, this time with a sacrifice fly, to give the Knights the victory. Spallone pitched both ends of the doubleheader, going 18 innings on the afternoon.
“There was no tougher team in extra innings last year,” said Sylvester. “If we entered extra innings, you could feel the desire of the team to win. We always knew we would win in the end.”
The pair of victories boosted the Knights above the .500 mark for the season (10-9) and in the SUNYAC (5-3). Back-to-back sweeps of Alfred St. and Houghton pushed the consecutive win total to double figures.
A rare Sunday doubleheader against Buffalo St. due to its earlier rainout gave the Knights three-straight SUNYAC doubleheaders on the weekend of April 17-19. Plattsburgh visited on Friday and both games were again captured by the Knights in the late frames. Tied 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth of the opener, two first-year pinch hitters delivered for the winning run: first-year Claire VanNewkirk got on board with a double, with the lead run scoring on a Julia Lalka single. In the second game, the Knights snapped a tie by pushing across three runs in the fifth on a double by Dennett en route to a 7-4 win.
Geneseo swept Potsdam the next day, coming back from being down 3-0 in the opener to win 9-6, and then scoring all three runs in the bottom of the fifth to erase a 1-0 deficit in the second game. The two games in Buffalo the next day were both tense affairs. In the first, Geneseo took a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh, only to have the Bengals score two and load the bases before the final out could be recorded. The nightcap followed a familiar script as Buffalo St. scored one in the bottom of the seventh and had the tying run on base before the Knights closed out a 3-2 win.
The victories tied the team for second all-time in consecutive wins, matching the 1998 team that went 31-7. A non-conference sweep at RIT pushed the streak to 18 wins, leaving only the 2002 SUNYAC championship squad, with 23 straight victories, ahead in the record book.
With 10 of the wins against conference opponents, the streak had also propelled Geneseo up the SUNYAC standings and comfortably within the top six spots qualifying for the post-season tournament. Heading into the regular season’s final weekend, the Knights had a chance to finish first or second—well above the sixth-place prediction of the coaches’ pre-season poll—but they would be on the road to face two tough opponents in New Paltz and defending champion Oneonta.
Against New Paltz, the Knights’ comeback powers fell short, as they dropped a 4-2 decision in the first game, ending the streak. But with second place, and a first-round bye still on the line, the team responded in strong fashion in the second game. A double by junior Cat Krok tied the game at two in the top of the seventh and sent the game into extra frames. In the top of the ninth the Knights exploded for five runs for a deceptive 7-2 final margin.
The two games at Oneonta would determine second place. In the opener, Geneseo built leads of 3-0, 6-3 and 8-6 and each time, in the next at-bat, Oneonta tied the game, with their last comeback knotting the game at 8-8 and sending it into extra innings. The Red Dragons had the winning run in scoring position in the eighth, but failed to score. In the top of the ninth, the Knights pushed across five runs, four on a Dennett grand slam, and then held on for a 13-10 win.
With a second-place finish clinched, the Knights closed out the doubleheader with a 5-2 victory, scoring two insurance runs in the top of the seventh for yet another close win.
Opening the SUNYAC tournament with three wins, including one over top-seed Cortland, built the new win streak to six games and brought the team to within one victory of the conference title. Unfortunately two consecutive losses to tournament winner Cortland ended the Knights’ dream of a championship.
Still, it was a memorable season. Throughout the year (and the streak), Sylvester showed no hesitance to alter his starting lineup or to trust pinch-hitters to come off the bench and deliver. While his veterans (seniors Spallone, Sami Brown, Kayleigh Blersch and Ashley Fillmore, along with juniors Moore, Jenna Phillips and Courtney Budynas) were among the consistent top performers, almost every player on the roster, including his newcomers, played a key role.
“It was a special team which combined great work effort with belief in each other to make themselves successful,” said Sylvester. “The season was a great demonstration that believing in yourself and the team would lead to victories when things get tough.”
Brian Bennett is director of design and publications and is part of the Athletic Communications and Media Relations staff. As the office's softball contact, he witnessed 12 of the 18 consecutive wins.