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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Diamonds for Tiffany

Softball's Tiffany Whitton is the nation's best with women on base.

May-June 2003

JHJ_WHITTON2
Last year's Ivy League Player of the Year, Whitton hits for average, power, and RBIs
Photograph by Jim Harrison
Late in the season last year — with the Ivy title up for grabs — Princeton's softball squad came to Harvard for a doubleheader that filled the stands. Both teams were undefeated until Princeton won the first game, 4-3, on a disputed call. In the bottom of the seventh (and final) inning, with bases loaded, Harvard cleanup hitter Sarah Koppel '02 was hit in the abdomen by a pitch — but in turning to dodge the incoming ball, her bat went around and the umpire ended the game by calling "Strike three."

In the second game, Harvard, in a revengeful mood, nonetheless found itself once again trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the seventh. Then two hits, a walk, a groundout, and a strikeout loaded the bases with two out. Unfortunately for Princeton, the next batter was Tiffany Whitton '03, one of the baserunners stranded by the questionable call. With one ripping left-handed swing, Whitton smashed a grand-slam home run over the left-field fence to end the game and silence throngs of avid Princeton rooters, who imagined they were one out away from a sweep. Sorry, Tigers: Harvard, 7-4.

That was one of three "walk-off" (game-ending) homers hit last year by Whitton, who is arguably the best clutch hitter in college softball: in 2002 she led the NCAA in runs batted in (RBI) per game, with a 1.22 average from 49 RBIs in 40 games. (Some colleges schedule many more games than others, making overall statistics less meaningful than per-game averages.) "I like pressure, clutch situations," she explains. "For some reason I just relax and get the job done."

Whitton also led the Ivies (and was sixth in the nation) with a .457 batting average, the third-best mark in Harvard history. Oh yes, she was Ivy League Player of the Year. And in the 2002 Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament, won by Harvard, Whitton played the championship game with her little finger broken; that didn't stop her from going 5-for-5, including a home run, and being named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "She's the most talented all-around player I've had," says Jenny Allard, now in her ninth season as Harvard's head softball coach.

Whitton owns a T-shirt that declares THERE'S NOTHING SOFT ABOUT IT. True enough: her batting feats aren't accomplished in 10-miles-per-hour "slow pitch" softball; college softball is a "fast-pitch" game with hurlers zipping them in at 65 miles per hour and throwing curves, knucklers, and rising fastballs. Whitton's repertoire included all of the above when she was on the mound; until giving up the position this season, she was a fine left-handed pitcher who posted a 2.48 earned-run average and struck out 88 in 96 innings two years ago. She also plays outfield and first (the roster lists her as a "utility" player). "With most good pitchers, all they do is pitch," says Allard. "They don't play defense. Tiffany had the gift to throw, but she is talented in so many areas. Pitching is not the thing she loved most. When she pitches, she doesn't hit as well, and if there's one thing she loves to do, it's to hit the ball."

Whitton doesn't disagree. "One of the greatest feelings in the world is really connecting with a ball, she says. "When I come up, I'm thinking I'm going to hit the ball. I don't want to walk. I'm going to take cuts. Lots of my hits are pitches out of the strike zone. No one is going to throw you a fastball down the middle; looking for a perfect strike is pointless. I don't look at pitches as strikes and balls — I look at them as 'This is something I can hit,' or not hit." Allard observes, "Tiffany's always aggressive. She doesn't react to the pitch; she is always ready to hit any pitch, and at the last second she peels off if she doesn't like it. If it's close, I'll want her to swing."

Even with her attacking style, Whitton rarely strikes out; as a sophomore, she fanned just 10 times in 144 at-bats. And when she makes contact, "All her power is coming into the ball," says Allard. "She has a beautiful swing — she can really get her hands through the ball and get the barrel of the bat out there. If Tiffany hits a single, it's a shot. She can hit long fly-ball home runs and hit line-drive home runs." Obviously, she can also hit for average: as a sophomore, she led the Ivies in batting with a .388 average (with seven homers) before raising that to last year's lofty .457, with 13 round-trippers. That set the Harvard season record for home runs; amazingly, Whitton also holds the Crimson career home run record (23) after only three years of play. This year, she plays outfield and first base, where her specialty is digging out low throws. We'll see what else she can break in the batter's box.

 

Even stellar talent needs a supportive culture, and Southern California may well be the world's best incubator of female softball talent. The U.S. softball teams won gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games, and Whitton estimates that 75 percent of the players came from Southern California. "They have the weather," she explains. They? Whitton herself hails from Brea, California, in Orange County, which surely has the weather and is 15 minutes from Edison Stadium, home of the World Series-winning Anaheim Angels. Her parents — Lang, a manager at a Sears hardware subsidiary, and Lee, a fourth-grade teacher — both swam competitively in high school. (Lee, a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, makes a pilgrimage to Dodger Stadium on her birthday.) As a youngster, Whitton enjoyed a "ton of sports," including tennis, gymnastics, and soccer.

After a standout career at Brea Olinda High School, which retired her number (14, the same one she wears now), Whitton decided to leave California; she took recruiting trips to Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Brown. "My home town is a great place to grow up in," she explains, "but Orange County is a fairly homogeneous, upper-middle-class place. Everyone wears Gap clothes, and if somebody tells you something, you believe it. I wanted to go somewhere that challenged my beliefs. Harvard did that the best. There's such a large international population here."

Being team cocaptain as a junior and senior has presented another type of challenge. "It taught me a lot about softball and life," she says. "You have to be a mediator between what the coach wants and what the team wants — the coach schedules a practice, and players say, 'But I have so much work.' You need to know when to ask the coach for a day off and when not to. You're dealing with adults on both ends." Whitton wrote an honors government thesis on the National Organization for Women and plans to work for consultants Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., after graduation. As an intern at the U.S. Department of Education last summer, she played on the department's softball team in an intragovernmental league, with "no lights, no fences, trees in the outfield, and tourists walking through games." Yes, it was fun.

 

Coach Allard calls her a "gamer" who likes hitting with people on base, and there are some excellent Crimson table-setters batting ahead of Whitton, who hits third in the order. Outfielder Lauren Stefanchik '05, for example, "gets on base half the time," says Allard. (Stefanchik doesn't stay put, either; last season, she stole 21 bases in 23 attempts.)

Six starters return from last spring's squad, which went 31-10 for a .756 winning percentage, the best in Harvard history. The grand-slam victory over Princeton, however, had an anticlimax; Harvard dropped a game to Cornell and finished 12-2 in the Ivies, second to Princeton's 13-1 — most frustrating for a team that won the Ivy title in 2000 and shared it with Cornell in 2001. Whitton could have been the first Harvard player to go 4-for-4 in Ivy championships. Of course, whether in a college career or a single game, whenever a ballplayer goes 4-for-4, as Whitton did against Penn last year (with three home runs), it is something sublime. But three out of four ain't bad.

~Craig Lambert