After hoisting the GNAC trophy for the last three years, winning the conference has become the expectation, not the exception for the Johnson & Wales University softball team. Now they've set their sights on taking the next step.
That next step begins on Friday for the Wildcats when they take on 12th-ranked Messiah at 3:30 p.m. in the NCAA Tournament. SUNY Cortland will serve as the host site for the regional.
In 2015 the softball team made history when they beat Eastern Connecticut State for the first NCAA Tournament win by a JWU women's program. Last season they shocked many by beating host Williams 8-0 in five innings to open the tournament.
Now the Wildcats want more. When softball won in 2015 they joined the men's basketball team as the only two programs to win in the NCAA. Now they want to match the basketball team's run to the Sweet 16 with a spot in the Super Regionals.
The Wildcats earned their automatic bid after winning the GNAC Crown against Suffolk. The Rams forced a deciding game on Sunday with a 3-2 victory, but the Wildcats walloped Suffolk 15-5 for their third conference crown and school-record 34th victory.
Head coach Kim Camara-Harvey, the 2017 GNAC Coach of the Year, has turned the Wildcats into an offensive juggernaut. Johnson & Wales ranks in the top 10 nationally for in runs, batting average, doubles, slugging percentages, on-base percentage and home runs.
Just because the Wildcats can mash the ball doesn't mean they can't pitch or play defense. Pitcher Jennifer Corona (Middle Island, NY) is 13th in the country with her 19 wins and she rates among the country's best in strikeouts and ERA. JWU is second in the country with a .977 fielding percentage.
Senior first baseman Emily Gorecki is the straw that stirs the drink offensively. The GNAC Triple Crown winner for the second year in a row, Gorecki leads the conference in batting average (.486), home runs (11), RBIs (52), slugging percentage (.933) and on-base percentage (.586). She's among the national leaders in those categories including slugging where she's fifth and on-base percentage where she rates eighth.
Two newcomers had added a boost to the offense. Freshman outfielder Kristin Frost (Pearl City, Hawaii) was the best rookie hitter in the league this year and it earned her GNAC Rookie of the Year and First-Team All-GNAC honors. Utility player Katie Rufo (Framingham, Mass.), a transfer from Elon, has provided a lot of power to the JWU offense and garnered First-Team All-GNAC accolades.
If it weren't for her teammate Gorecki, outfielder Alex Fantasia (Framingham, Mass.) would be the GNAC leader in batting average at .443. A Second-Team All-GNAC selection, she is also second with a .524 on-base percentage.
Eight different starters are hitting above .300 for a Johnson & Wales squad with a .359 batting average. Shortstop Brenna DuPerry (Cranston, RI) is one of the top run producers in the country because third baseman Meghan Gavin (Wallingford, Conn.) rates 21st in sacrifice hits.