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Seniors lead MSU through rough season

May 16, 2011

Going into the 2011 season, MSU softball head coach Jacquie Joseph had high expectations for her team. And with many of the Big Ten teams fitting in the same range of talent, she thought there was even a possibility for a conference championship.

In nonconference games prior to the Big Ten season, the Spartans (27-27 overall, 6-14 Big Ten) had their ups and downs, but they generally responded well to being always on the road and facing unknown, tough pitchers. Near the end of the nonconference games, they even found themselves on a seven-game winning streak — the longest the team had seen since 2006.

But during the nonconference season, MSU lost senior outfielder Jessica Bracamonte — the leadoff batter and an experienced leader — on March 6 to an anterior cruciate ligament tear in her knee, and as the team opened the Big Ten season losing six of its first nine games, it looked like the Spartans’ hope of a championship slowly was moving out of reach.

“Losing (Bracamonte) was just a huge blow that I’m not sure we ever recovered from,” Joseph said.

After intense rehabilitation, Bracamonte amazingly returned to the lineup just three weeks after her injury. Not only was she able to play while still injured, but she even blasted a home run against Penn State on April 6.

However, in the Spartans’ 4-2 loss to Northwestern on April 13, Bracamonte tore her medial collateral ligament, ending her final season. Despite losing a crucial player, MSU still had senior shortstop Lindsey Hansen and junior catcher Brett Williams to rely on.

Hansen finished her MSU career leading the Spartans with a .404 batting average, 63 hits and 20 home runs — the most in the Big Ten. In racking up so many home runs, Hansen now ranks first in program history in single season home runs and career home runs (42).

With Williams finishing the season with 13 home runs, she and Hansen combine for the top home run tandem in the Big Ten, and they’ve been sitting there comfortably since the beginning of April.

As Hansen and Williams led the way, the Spartans excelled offensively with the speed and support of junior outfielder Lori Padilla and junior third baseman Ali Grant. But with MSU standing strong as one of the better offensive teams in program history, it wasn’t enough to carry the average fielding and struggling pitching.

Junior pitcher Lauren Kramer — who finished the season with a 5.02 ERA — wasn’t playing up to her potential, so Joseph was forced to rely on freshman pitcher Cassee Layne.

Layne was thrown into a larger role than anticipated, and although she handled the pressure well, she didn’t have the experience Kramer had to lead the team. Layne finished the season 15-16 while maintaining a 3.16 ERA.

The Spartans also had sophomore pitcher Shelby Wise — who Joseph said she “held her own.” But overall, the ERAs were too high, and there was too much inconsistency on the mound.

As MSU ended the year with better pitching than what it started with, the team got back on track with a four-game winning streak near the end. The team needs the experience gained by the younger pitchers to buttress more thoroughly the team next season and the inconsistency to be diminished.

Through all the solid wins and unexpected losses, the team’s motto the whole season was finish better than it started, and while its record might not show that, the Spartans salvaged what they had left.

There is no question that the seniors — Hansen, Bracamonte, outfielder Karen Fox and first baseman Heidi Purtzer — carried the team through all of its adversity and finished out the season strong. Joseph noted their uniqueness, calling it one of her better senior classes.

It’s not every season a team loses its leadoff batter or sees a standout like Hansen, but hopefully for MSU, the returning players can use the season as a learning experience and take notes from their previous leaders.

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