On March 1, the Penn softball team squared off with Ole Miss for its second game of the day — and second game of the season. By contrast, the Rebels were taking the field for their 21st contest of the year.
Not surprisingly, Ole Miss slipped away with a 2-1 victory, dealing the Quakers their first of four losses at the Central Florida Spring Fling Tournament — all at the hands of teams at least five games further into their seasons than Penn.
Due to Ivy League regulations, until this year Ancient Eight squads have been prohibited from starting their seasons before March 1. Across other conferences, many squads start in the second week of February.
A recent rule change has moved the Ivy League’s start date back to Feb. 22, but with the proviso that teams can only play two out of the first three weekends of the season.
The rule change helps teams with set exam schedules that disrupt playing time in early March. This season, Dartmouth played in tournaments the first two weekends, before taking the third off to allow players to prepare for exams.
While the Big Green benefited from the modification, the rule change doesn’t alter the fortunes of Penn’s squad.
“If I have to sit out one of the weekends, I’d rather take the risk of playing later when the weather should be better than going and spending a lot of money to go south in February when it could very well rain or even snow,” coach Leslie King said. “For a school like Dartmouth, it’s great.
They’re on quarters, their weather’s not going to be as good where they are, they can get out. For us, maybe not as advantageous.”
Even with the rule change, Ivy League squads will still inevitably open their seasons against teams already deep into their schedules. Additionally, many of the top squads in the country hail from warmer climates, allowing them to practice outside much earlier. Currently, programs such as Arizona State, Alabama, Cal and Florida rank in the top five in the nation — and perhaps not surprisingly so.
All of these factors can contribute to a bumpy start to Penn softball’s season.
“We’ve struggled the last couple of years actually to hit in Florida, and that might be a product of just not being outside,” King said. “The ball looks different. The whole environment obviously is very, very different.”
Rustiness tends to strike the Quakers’ offense more so than its defense, and those struggles can be amplified against teams that have already found their offensive rhythm.
“It’s tough to see all these other people doing so well and having all these amazing stats, and then here you are just struggling the whole time,” senior centerfielder Jessica Melendez said. “But you have to keep it in perspective that it isn’t the time that we want to be hitting our peak.”
Since Penn plays on a somewhat uneven playing field in non-conference games, emphasis is heavily placed on the Ivy schedule. In fact, the team treats the non-conference schedule almost singularly as a training ground for conference play.
“We could lose every non-conference game there is. As long as we win every Ivy League game, we’re still going to be the Ivy League champions, and that’s all that really matters,” Melendez said.
Another consequence of the Ancient Eight’s limitations on playing games in February is that Ivy teams opt to jampack their schedules in March and April. The top five teams in the country will play an average of 15 games in the month of April. Meanwhile, the Quakers will play 21 games over that span, after already having taken part in 24 games in the month of March.
The Ivy League has no restrictions on the number of contests that can be played in its constrained time frame beyond the NCAA’s limit of 56 games. Despite the shorter schedule, Penn still managed to play 50 games last year, tied for most in the league with conference champion Harvard.
Veterans of Penn’s squad, however, are relatively unfazed by the rapid succession of games.
“We’d rather be here than at school anyway,” pitcher Lindsay Mann said with a laugh.
With the team playing such a high volume of games, academic performance could be a concern for the squad in the spring semester, but organization and diligence allow students to excel regardless.
Students communicate with professors to warn about missed classes due to games or travel and minimize conflicts by avoiding Friday and Wednesday afternoon classes.
In fact, the high volume of games can even have a positive effect on the team’s scores in the classroom.
“For the most part, I would say that a lot of us actually have our best academic semesters during the season because we just schedule our time so much better,” Melendez said.
After practicing six days a week in February, the players can hardly wait to play games when March rolls around, even at such high volume.
“We get so anxious to play, so once the season finally does come we’re just so happy to be on the field,” Melendez said.
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