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Bouncing back from a rough sophomore season, Leah Allen has hit five home runs in 2016 and is just two away from the Penn softball career record.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

Not many players can look back at a season in which they hit .278 and tallied 31 RBI and call it an off-year. But for Penn softball’s Leah Allen, that’s exactly what 2015 was.

Shortly after stepping onto the red dirt of Penn Park in 2014, Allen exploded onto the scene. Her first-ever collegiate at-bat was an RBI double, a hit that would foreshadow a season of excellence on offense for the then-freshman. All year long, pitchers couldn’t contain Allen, and her performance landed her Penn’s Offensive Player of the Year award and the first unanimous Ivy League Rookie of the Year honor since 2011. Those accolades only made sense — she batted an insane .458 in conference games.

But then came sophomore year. Allen was by no means burned out — her RBI total was second in the Ivy League only to then-freshman teammate Jurie Joyner’s 33 and her five home runs in 2015 put her career total at 18, the third-most in program history.

For nearly any other player on Penn’s roster, those numbers would have been enviable. For Allen, it was an out-of-character performance.

“Any time you have a really good freshman year, it’s always hard to sustain that, and there’s that term ‘sophomore slump,’” coach Leslie King said of the now-junior outfielder. “Sometimes people get that in their head, and they start thinking, ‘Well, I’m in a sophomore slump.’ It’s very common.”

According to Allen, that slump mentality defined her sophomore year.

“Last year it was a lot, coming back from my freshman year and feeling like I had to live up to it,” Allen said. “I would get really frustrated with myself.”

Thanks to the support of classmate Alexis Sargent, who experienced a similar batting slump during the 2015 season, Allen knew that her performance sophomore year was a low point from which she was destined to rise.

“It is really one of those things where you have to believe in yourself and remember how you were hitting beforehand,” Sargent explained of the pair of then-sophomores’ struggles in the batter’s box. “But Leah is really good at staying positive and believing in herself.”

In the months that passed between the last game of the 2015 season — a 1-0 loss to Dartmouth in the Ivy League Championship Series that sealed the Quakers’ fate as second-best in the Ancient Eight for the second year in a row — and the team’s opening game of 2016 in Florida over spring break, Allen was determined to find a way to get back to where she was during her freshman year.

“This year I came in telling myself that the only person I have to please is myself,” she said.

Although the 2016 season is still young, Allen has a lot to be pleased with so far. In just 20 games, her hitting has returned to vintage form. The junior is hitting .333 and has already racked up 23 RBI and five home runs. That brings the Woodbine, Md., native just two homers away from becoming Penn’s all-time career leader in home runs — and she still has 68 regular season games left in the Red and Blue.

The adjustments for Allen weren’t all mental. In a conference as small as the Ivy League, it’s hard to be such a powerful hitter and not have opposing pitchers notice. The kind of pitches thrown Allen’s way changed, thus so did the way she composed herself in the batter’s box.

“People made some adjustments with how they pitched to her, and we talked about really working on hitting the outside pitch well, learning to take walks when they’re offered and being a little bit more selective at the plate,” King said. “Those are adjustments that I think she’s been doing a great job of this year.”

Thanks to her return to offensive dominance, Allen has rightly earned a prominent place within the Quakers’ batting lineup, serving as the team’s cleanup hitter.

“She’s in a role to hit in runs,” King said. “That’s what her job is, and she does it well.”

Doubtlessly, with that designation comes the pressure to deliver. But if her Ivy League-leading RBI total is any indication of how she handles that pressure, Allen appears to be coping with it just fine.

“I put a lot of that pressure on myself,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s actually there because [softball] is a team sport and we all rely on each other.”

That mutual reliance, though, is something that Allen has earned from her teammates through her work ethic, her quiet leadership and, of course, her prowess with bat in hand.

“She’s a huge spark plug for our team,” Sargent said emphatically. “When we see her hit a bomb, it lights a fire under us, and we just know we’re ready to go and we got this.”

This year Allen has found a way to make her presence felt on the field whether or not she hits a home run in a given game. Perhaps the most telling way in which she does this is by no longer being intimidated by whatever her next at-bat will bring.

So just how has she managed to stare down pitchers with a confidence that would have been foreign to her in the 2015 season?

“I don’t really think about softball until I get in the box,” she said. “I just kind of zone down and hit and go from there.”

As long as Allen can manage to stay in the moment on offense for the rest of the season, it looks like her sophomore slump is nothing more than a memory.

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