After a heartbreaking loss in the final game of the 2022 season left the Athenas just inches from a playoff berth, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) softball is coming into 2023 on a mission. Ranked No. 4 in the SCIAC’s preseason poll because of improvements to pitching and hitting and their extensive catalog of dugout chants, the Athenas are swinging for a conference title and beyond.
CMS started 2023 with a bang Saturday, commanding Westcliff 6-5 in the second game of their season-opening doubleheader sweep of the Warriors at Athena Field.
The first game saw CMS take the win 3-1 due in large part to the pitching of Heather Shipley CM ’23, who secured the victory holding the Westcliff offense to just one run in a 7-inning complete game performance.
Game two began in similar fashion, with starter Jade Johnson CM ’24 opening her season with a rapid one-two-three inning.
The Athenas looked to follow this wave of momentum into the bottom of the first with runners on the corners and Rachel Sapirstein CM ’26 coming to bat. Despite the dugout providing cheers of “See that girl, watch that scene, Rachel Sapirstein” to the tune of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” she went down swinging on a pitch high and inside to end the first.
The second inning featured little offense on both sides. Johnson continued her dominance into the third, putting away Westcliff with relative ease.
The Athenas’ bats caught fire in the bottom of the third. Backed against the wall with two outs and a runner on second, Madison Gonzalez HM ’25 muscled an inside pitch into center field to open up the scoring and take the 1-0 lead.
“My mindset usually is just to find something within my zone and drive it to the outfield; that’s my job,” Gonzalez said. “I was a little bit late on that one but it worked.”
Westcliff soon learned that Gonzalez’s bloop was just the tremors for an oncoming fault-line earthquake as Sapirstein returned to the plate, crushing a ball to the right-center gap and hustling to third for the Athenas’ first triple of the year.
CMS struggled mightily with their hitting last season, finishing second-to-last in the conference in overall slugging percentage. As a first-year, Sapirstein said she wants to bring new energy to the team.
“As a [first-year], I’m just excited to get out there and play,” Sapirstein said. “I think we have a really good [first-year] class this year so I’m excited to see what we can do this year.”
Even with the triple giving CMS a 2-0 lead, the Warriors refused to yield. Quickly allowing two solid base hits, Johnson found herself in a jam with two on and none out.
Unfazed, Johnson proceeded to sit down the next two batters with ease; however, after running the count full with two outs, Johnson was cornered into a difficult decision.
“I like to throw a lot of drop curves and my other pitches weren’t working so I decided to go to my safety pitch,” Johnson said.
Her choice paid off – the batter could only muster a weak pop up easily hauled in by first baseman Abby Thompson CM ’25.
Momentum swung to the Athenas in the bottom of the fourth. After a perfectly executed squeeze play by Emma Suh CM ’25 and a single from Thompson combined to bring home two, Gonzalez returned to bat, keyed into Westcliff’s pitching strategy.
“I focused on getting off of the plate a little more so that I had more room to not jam myself and then I was expecting that [pitch] inside and I drove it down the 5-6 hole,” said Gonzalez.
With Gonzalez’s RBI single and Sapirstein looming, Westcliff was frightened into a pitching change. The Athenas’ third baseman paid it no mind as her grounder, which was scored an error, brought home yet another run, closing out a four-spot inning for CMS.
With a commanding 6-0 lead heading into the top of the fifth, Johnson’s day was over. Alongside Shipley’s performance in game one, inklings of an elite pitching staff appear to be brewing in the Athenas’ rotation. Head coach Gina Oaks Garcia put the SCIAC on notice for CMS’s projected pitching this season.
“I’m excited [for] our depth in the pitching circle. We have seven really legit pitchers that can come in any time… they can all pick each other up and take it to a lot of teams,” Oaks Garcia said.
Perhaps taking the score for granted, the Athenas allowed Westcliff back into the game with some careless fielding. Defense was a source of pride during an overall difficult season for CMS last year, but Oaks Garcia said the team will nip the issue in the bud.
“Defense wins ball games so we’ll continue to grind it out this week,” said Oaks Garcia. “I’m not worried about the defense.”
Regardless, Westcliff took advantage, mounting a comeback that included doubles off of both the left and right field fences, making the score 6-5 in the top of the seventh. Nevertheless, with two outs on the board, Alexis Gero CM ’23 shut down hopes of a series split, forcing a flyout to right and earning her first save of 2023.
Off to a 2-0 start, the Athenas’ season appears promising. Sapirstein noted her aspirations for her first year on the squad.
She plans on “getting to know [her] teammates more, compet[ing] every single day and get[ting] better.”
Meanwhile, as the team begins eyeing conference play, Gonzalez has her sights set on one goal.
“I’m looking forward to winning the SCIAC,” Gonzalez said.
CMS will return to Athena Field to host San Diego Christian in the first game of a doubleheader today at 11:00 a.m. They will start conference play on March 24 against Cal Lutheran.