Eastern Connecticut softball team heading into national championship: ‘Putting it all together’

Photo of Mike Anthony

The Eastern Connecticut softball team on Monday made the nine-hour bus ride from Willimantic to Salem, Va., for this week’s NCAA Division III softball national championship.

On board were the past three Little East Conference pitchers of the year.

Senior Morgan Bolduk won the award as a sophomore 2019.

Junior Carly Stoker won it as a sophomore in 2021.

Sophomore Alexis Michon, one of three Eastern players named a first-team All-American on Tuesday, won it this season.

“I think we have the deepest pitching staff in the country,” Michon said. “I watch a lot of games and it seems like a lot of teams have only one stud pitcher. We have four.”

Add junior Alyssa Vilchez to the mix and the Warriors, who open the double-elimination tournament Thursday against Trine University at Moyer Sports Complex, might have the pitching needed for a championship — more pitching than it has even needed over the past two months, in fact.

Stoker, who dominated as the team’s ace last season, hardly pitches anymore, having moved to the outfield as Eastern settled on the one-two punch of Michon and Bolduk, whose repertoires differ. Michon is mostly spin and movement where Bolduk, whose pitches top out at 65 MPH, is more pure power.

Michon, who is 23-1 with a 0.93 ERA and 189 strikeouts in 143.2 innings, will likely start Thursday’s opener. Coach Diana Pepin hasn’t ruled out Bolduk (12-2, 0.74 ERA, 84 strikeouts, 85.1 innings), who has been nursing a foot injury, as the Game 1 starter but Bolduk’s more likely role is to relieve Michon and/or start the second game.

Eastern’s team ERA of 1.15 ranks No. 3 in the nation, just behind Texas Lutheran and Christopher Newport (both 1.14). The Warriors are seeded No. 3 for the eight-team tournament, behind Christopher Newport and Salisbury, and ahead of No. 4 Texas Lutheran.

“My confidence is high, but my confidence isn’t high within me,” said leadoff hitter Cassie Woods, who is batting .486. “It’s within the whole team. I feel comfortable playing because the team is just so close and so good and we all instill confidence in each other. I just feel at peace at the plate. I don’t have to press to get on base every single time because I know our pitchers will just mow them down.”

Woods has 71 hits, tying the Eastern single-season record set by her coach at Fitch High, Arielle Cooper. Now the coach at Coast Guard, Cooper was a first-team All-American at Eastern in 2012 and 2013.

Eastern (43-5) is seeking its fifth NCAA title (1982, 1985, 1986, 1990) and first under Pepin, a Willimantic native and 1992 Eastern graduate who was a player on the Warriors’ most recent championship team.

Pepin’s record over 21 seasons at her alma mater is 528-287-2. Eastern is 113-22 since 2019, when it advanced to the national tournament in Tyler, Tex., and finished third.

The Warriors returned and added key players in 2020, but only two games were played before the season was canceled due to the pandemic. Last season, Eastern was 32-4 and lost in an NCAA Regional.

This season, “All the stars are aligning for us,” Woods said. “We’re just excited. We’ve been working so hard on this since January. We’re just ready. We’ve never felt more ready.”

Eastern had one recent hiccup in its past 28 games, a 3-2 loss to Kean in a NCAA regional game May 14. The Warriors bounced back to with three victories by a combined score of 23-1 (two of them over Kean) to advance out of that regional, and swept Randolph-Macon in a Super Regional to advance to Virginia.

“Nothing like a long bus ride at the end of May,” Pepin said. “Some of them don’t know what they’re in for, and it’s such a great experience, but I certainly do. [The season] has been exciting. It’s been crazy. It was kind of expected to be at this level. Overall, it’s just been nice to have everyone competing on this level day in and day out.”

COVID-19 resulted in the NCAA granting an additional season of eligibility to all players and Eastern is loaded with upperclassmen. Bolduk, a 2017 Rockville High graduate, is in her fifth year, for instance, and Woods her sixth.

Woods, now working on a master’s degree in accounting, graduated from Keene State in 2020 after playing three years there and transferred to Eastern last year. She was named a second-team All-American.

Michon, a 2020 Montville High graduate, played just one season at Plymouth State before transferring.

“I didn’t think I wanted to stay home at first, but I did get really homesick,” Michon said. “I decided to tough it out. Then we played Eastern in the spring [of 2021] and I just saw how they all played with each other. I was like, ‘I really want to be a part of that.’ I went home and I told my dad when I visited home. We kept it to ourselves. At the end of the season, I decided to tell everybody I was leaving. It was just more competitive at Eastern for me and my goals in my softball career.”

Vilchez, of Brampton, Ontario, is 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 43.1 innings. Stoker, whose last pitching appearance was April 30, is 4-2 with a 2.97 ERA and with 41 strikeouts in 37.2 innings. Last season, Stoker was 17-1 with a 2.31 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 121 innings.

Senior Brooke Matyasovsky, who went to Amity High and transferred to Eastern from Bridgeport in 2019, leads the Warriors with 16 home runs and 61 RBIs. Senior Julia SanGiovanni of East Haven is batting .412 with 42 RBI. They were both also named first-team All-Americans, making Eastern the only team in the nation with three first-teamers.

Stoker, of Sandy Creek, N.Y., who transferred in 2020 after two years at Central Connecticut, has eight home runs (second on the team) and 30 RBI (third).

“In 2020, we felt like we had all the pieces, and then COVID came and destroyed a lot of these kids’ dreams,” Pepin said. “Last year, the expectation was there but we had too many people who were new and didn’t understand the expectation and culture. This year, they’re putting it all together.

“They all say, ‘I want to win a national championship.’ And I’m like, ‘Do you really know what it means to win a national championship?’ The biggest hurdle is to keep them calm and composed and understand they just need to play. It’s just a game. There are a lot of individual accolades and a lot of championships we’ve won already, but we need to just stay in the moment and enjoy the process and experience.”