Softball has been one of the best-performing teams at Columbia throughout this decade. Head coach Jennifer Teague is coming off of an Ivy League Coach of the Year season during which the Lions could have received their first Ivy League championship; the team was projected to win the conference before the 2020 season was canceled.
However, softball, much like women’s basketball, has only recently joined the championship contention. At the beginning of last decade, softball ranked dead last in two consecutive seasons and was a lower-tier team until 2018.
Coach Kayla Noonan, who led softball from the 2000s to the first half of the 2010s, struggled to convert individual talent into team victories. Noonan had recruited many of the program’s stars, yet the Lions never went above .500 under her leadership throughout this decade. Following Noonan’s resignation in 2014, Teague left Michigan State to mentor the Light Blue. The Ivy League harshly welcomed Teague, whose Lions dropped to seventh from fourth in the league and remained at the bottom half of the table for three straight seasons.
However, with the rise of key young players like outfielder Sommer Grzybek, CC ’20 and second baseman Taylor Troutt, CC ’18, the Lions exploded in the 2018 season to take third in the League. Grzybek; infielder Maria Pagane, CC ’21; and five other All-Ivy selections continued the momentum in 2019 to make the Light Blue the runner-up in what seemed to be a promising 2020 campaign.
The team’s offensive success was key in the past few seasons. Infielder Madison Gott, CC ’18; Troutt; and Grzybek dominated single-season records in batting average, slugging percentage, and home runs. Many of softball’s offensive records and best statistical performances have come in 2017 or after. Grzybek led the team into the 2020 season prepared to break even more records, and Max Ortega, CC ’21, who already had 59 runs prior to the conference season, looked to break the single-season record.
Kayla Lechler, CC ’12
Lechler kicked off last decade for the Lions with the first first-team All-Ivy selection in 2010. At a time when the Light Blue was not particularly strong, Lechler’s All-Ivy honor was only the seventh in program history. She was a tremendous hitter, holding the Columbia record for runs with 37 scored in 2010. Unfortunately, her individual prowess did not translate into wins for the Lions, who were dead last in the Ivy League that season. Lechler would also end her career early after 2010.
Alexa Pinarski, CC ’22
Pinarski was the second rookie to earn a first-team All-Ivy selection in Columbia history. The pitcher caught fire during Ivy play, posting an impressive 2.48 ERA in 13 games, and led all pitchers with her three Ivy League shutouts. Being voted into the first-team as a first-year player speaks to her dominance on the field. Had the season not been canceled, Pinarski would have been a strong contender for the Pitcher of the Year. Though she did not appear in any of the games the Lions played in 2020, she is just a sophomore this year, and has many more opportunities to showcase her talents in the future.
Madison Gott, CC ’18
Gott ranks within the top five in batting average, slugging percentage, triples, home runs, and total bases. She is one of the best offensive players the Lions have ever had. Gott holds a program record of 96 runs scored, including 30 career home runs, which is also a program record. She came in the same year as head coach Jennifer Teague and, therefore, experienced the highs and lows of the team. Her offense leveled up in 2017 when she had a 16 percent jump in slugging percentage, which was crucial for the Lions to rise to the top tier of the Ivy League. In 2018, she earned a first-team honor, applauding her more than four-fold increase in putouts from 2017 to 2018 after switching from shortstop to first base: her 202 putouts were almost a quarter of the team’s total.
Taylor Troutt, CC ’18
Troutt is the only Player of the Year in Columbia’s softball history. In 2018, she had a monstrous .797 slugging percentage and scored 31 runs, including 9 home runs. She ranked top 10 in the nation in batting average that year and led the Ivy League in hits, doubles, home runs, and RBI. Troutt holds third place on the Light Blue’s record book in single-season RBIs with 36, and she’s reached it in both 2016 and 2018. She ranks No. 4 in total bases, just behind her offensive partner in crime Madison Gott.
Alix Cook, CC ’15
Cook was a reliable infield player who started all 181 games in her career and faced the opposing pitcher 595 times in total, more than any other player in that decade. She’s a volume hitter and is just one shy of Gott’s record of 59 hits in a single season. When the Lions needed to score, they could always rely on Cook to step up to the plate. On the fielding side, she was also consistent at third base, dishing out a total of 329 assists in her career and securing 219 putouts. She has been part of the All-Ivy team starting her sophomore year and earned two second-team selections and a first-team selection during her senior year.
Maria Pagane, CC ’21
Maria Pagane completes the powerhouse infield. She scored 30-plus runs in both of her first two seasons and had hit 6 runs in the 10 games she played in 2020 to remain on-pace for another 30-plus season, which is a consistency in offense that not even Gott can match. If this season was not canceled, she could have been in the top five all-time runs scored list and smashed the program record by double digits, especially since she has another year to go. She tops it off with a first-team All-Ivy selection after her sophomore season,
Emily Caruthers, CC ’14
Caruthers is the Lion queen at base-stealing, securing 31 stolen bases in her three years with the Light Blue. Her career average of .338 batting average ranks third of all time. She scored 29 times in 48 appearances in 2013, the season when she got her first-team All-Ivy selection. Caruthers was also indestructible on defense that year with a 100 percent fielding percentage. If she got her hands on the ball, it was an automatic out.
Shelby Unger, CC ’17
In comparison to other players on the list, Unger may seem lacking in her accolades as she only received one second-team All-Ivy selection. However, she earned her All-Ivy selection after her sophomore season. Furthermore, her career was cut short by injury early in her junior season. When compared to other outfielders’ accolades this decade, a second-team honor is not bad at all. In her first year, Unger scored 20 runs in 130 at-bats, and in her first two seasons, she had just four errors combined.
Sommer Grzybek, CC ’20
Grzybek is the star on this Ivy League top-seeded 2020 team. Her name appears 11 times in the Lions’ record book. She is by far the leader in career batting averages with a .347 and in slugging percentages with a .626, almost six percent more than the second place. Grzybek’s hitting performance in 2017 and 2019 puts her twice on single-season records in slugging percentage and home runs. In fact, she is tied at a program record with 10 home runs in 2017. She has been an All-Ivy selection in all three seasons that she has played and is a potential contender for Player of the Year in 2020, but unfortunately, her senior year was cut sh
Kayla Noonan is the second and longest-reigning coach of softball’s 19-and-a-half year history. She took care of the young team from its early years all the way to 2014. While having some mediocre successes in her first five seasons, she abruptly fell off the cliff in 2008, going just 3-17 in conference play. Softball would continue wandering in failure territory for another four seasons, having only slightly recovered in 2013 and 2014 immediately prior to her departure.
Interestingly, Noonan was considered to only be a temporary choice when the Lions’ first coach Christine Vogt left unexpectedly for an assistant coaching job at Central Michigan University. Columbia Athletics was supposed to use Noonan to fill the void until the end of 2003 so that it could spend more time thoroughly searching for a new head coach. However, that new person never arrived, perhaps because Noonan went 20-22 in 2003— which was considered passable for the young Columbia program.
Noonan expected herself to last beyond 2003. In an interview with the Spectator that year, she said, “Everything’s fallen in line for me to be head coach.”
Although her career was long, it never caught up to Vogt’s success in the early 2000s. Noonan did not have a single winning season in her painfully long 12 seasons coaching the Lions and her years with the program were plagued by abnormalities: Columbia ranked in the bottom two of the Ivy League for three consecutive seasons and her players never seemed to finish out their four years. Many talents, such as Kayla Lechler, CC ’12, stopped playing after their sophomore or junior years. In 2006, five of her rising seniors chose to quit. In 2010, the team was so small that there were only three substitutes.
When Noonan resigned in 2014, Athletics announced that she decided to pursue new challenges and opportunities. However, that season would be her last as a softball coach. Noonan now works as the director of admissions at Mercy College.
In 2015, the Light Blue welcomed Jennifer Teague, who had been a successful coach at the University of Buffalo and at Michigan State University. Based on the team’s performance early in Teague’s tenure, it was surprising how quickly Columbia softball became one of the best in the Ivy League. The Lions ranked seventh once, in 2015, and sixth twice, in 2016 and 2017. Then, they suddenly jumped to third in 2018. Teague tutored eight players to All-Ivy mentions and Taylor Troutt, CC ’18, received Player of the Year.
The Lions’ offense in 2018 set eight single-season records in program history, thanks to the 30 combined home runs from Troutt; Madison Gott, CC ’18; Sommer Grzybek, CC ’20; and Maria Pagane, CC ’21. From there, Columbia improved even more in 2019, ranking second in the league after a playoff loss to Harvard, and Teague earned her first Coach of the Year award.
Teague’s biggest successes have been in recruitment and retention. She is consistently able to keep at least 19 to 20 players on the team, in contrast to the 12 to 13 common at the start of the decade. Upon Teague’s arrival, she brought with her players that took over program records in offense. Most notably, under her tutelage, Gott and Troutt seized first and second in career total bases, home runs, and RBIs. Furthermore, they occupied four out of six places in single-season RBIs. Counting Grzybek; Pagane; and Max Ortega, CC ’21, practically all single-season offensive records were set by players under Teague.
For a young program, breaking records is probably not a surprising feat, but the Lions’ rapid rise to a No. 1 rank in 2020 is incredibly impressive for the just-20-year-old team. As Teague goes into her sixth season with the Light Blue, softball will likely welcome a new decade of success with the trophy closer to the team than ever.
The essence of softball’s movement toward the light is its energetic offense, and no series can illustrate that better than the season finale against Cornell on April 28 and 29 of 2018 when runners returned home 39 times in the three-game stretch.
On April 28, the Lions scored 30 runs, smashing the previous program record of 21. Both games saw the Light Blue’s bursts of offense, with an 8-run third inning in the first game and a 7-run third inning in the second game. During the third inning of the first game, shortstop Maria Pagane, CC ’21, hit a home run to left field, plating herself and utility Olivia Parker, CC ’18.
During the first game, first baseman Madison Gott, CC ’18; second baseman Taylor Troutt, CC ’18; outfielder Sommer Grzybek, CC ’20; and third baseman Max Ortega, CC ’21 combined for 10 runs on 19 at-bats, and Gott, Trout, and Ortega all recorded home runs. Alexandra Yule, CC ’19, also came out for the Lions, hitting two home runs in the second game in just four at-bats. Unfortunately, title contenders Dartmouth and Harvard also closed out the season strong, causing Columbia to settle for third in 2018. Regardless, this series primed the Lions for yet another season of raging offense coming into 2019.
The series also highlighted the offensive leap from 2017 to 2018, concluding softball’s stagnation for most of the decade. Softball had a plus-1.27 runs scored per game, a plus-.259 average home runs per game, and a plus-.313 average bases stolen per game in 2018 thanks to Troutt and Gott. Troutt saw a 23 percent increase in batting average and a 41 percent increase in slugging percentage.
Grzybek’s continued growth also pushed the team along.“It’s really cool knowing that if I get on-base, I have [Grzybek] behind me to move me over, move me in,” Gott said.
Head coach Teague stated that the recruitment in recent seasons prepared the Lions for this sudden transition from bottom-tier team to top-tier. And with Pagane and Ortega only finishing their first year in the 2018 season and Grzybek reaching her upperclassman years, the program could only improve.
That Cornell series thus became the doorway into the 2020s: a potential decade of Columbia’s dominance in the Ivy League.