Surprising Lehman bows out in CUNY tourney

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It took only a few weeks for the transformation to be complete, for the Lehman Lightning softball team to see its season go from forgettable to memorable.

A season that began with eight straight losses, followed by 10 postponements due to weather and field conditions, along with the sudden resignation of its head coach, turned completely around when Erin Van Nostrand stepped in to right Lehman’s listing ship.

In the final 20 games of the regular season, Van Nostrand — Lehman’s associate athletic director and a former Division III national softball coach of the year at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington — guided the Lightning to 10 victories and secured an unlikely spot in the City University of New York Athletic Conference tournament.

And last week the good times continued for the Lightning — for a few days at least. Lehman knocked off both Brooklyn College and No. 2 seed Hunter in the CUNYAC tournament before being bounced from the double-elimination tournament with back-to-back losses to top-seeded College of Staten Island, 9-1, last Saturday, and Hunter, 3-1, on Sunday.

Yaidee Nieves, a junior pitcher, picked up the victory in the wins over Brooklyn and in the first matchup with Hunter. And if you don’t think that was significant, consider the fact Nieves only recently learned her craft.

“She was fantastic,” Van Nostrand said of her ace. “She only learned how to pitch in January. It’s crazy. I’ve done this a long time and I’ve never seen a kid pick it up like this. She’s not throwing fastballs. She’s throwing pitches that are moving, hitting locations. 

“You have people who pitched for 10 years and can’t throw the way she does. She’s a fantastic athlete and she’s like a sponge. Whatever you tell her to do, she’ll do it. She’s a special kid.”

Nieves, like many others, was surprised to see Lehman landing in the CUNYAC tournament, especially after the bumpy start to the season.

“I really didn’t think we’d get here,” Nieves said after the win over Brooklyn College. “I don’t think anyone pictured this situation. But I was really excited to get to the playoffs, to be honest. I gave it everything I had.”

Lehman actually jumped out to a 1-0 lead against Staten Island when Caitlyn Vernon’s sacrifice fly in the top of the first plated Maranda Diaz. But that would be all the offense the Lightning could muster as they saw their eight-game winning streak snapped in a 9-1 loss.

Lehman then lost a 3-1 heartbreaker to Hunter on Sunday. The Hawks took a 3-0 lead after five innings but Lehman broke through for a run in the sixth on an RBI triple by Vernon. And when Nieves walked and stole second base, the Lightning had the tying runs in scoring position. 

Lehman couldn’t do any further damage, however, and the loss eliminated the Lightning from the tournament.

Lehman began the tournament with a 10-2 victory over Brooklyn College last Wednesday before topping Hunter 4-1 last Saturday. Nieves picked up the win in both games.

“The plan was to give it our all,” Nieves said. “We came in strong and went out strong. We just love to play the game. Win or lose, we give it our all.”

For a team that at one point in the season owned records of 0-10 and 4-22, an eight-game winning streak down the stretch along with a trip to the CUNYAC tournament was a testament to the turnaround the Lightning enjoyed under Van Nostrand. Add in the fact Lehman put a scare into its tournament opponents, going 2-2 with a victory over No. 2 seed Hunter, and you can see the Lehman team of the latter part of the season bore little resemblance to the one that started the season 0-8. 

It was a spirited run by the Lightning and one Van Nostrand said came from a change in work habits — and a change in attitude. 

“We talked about when you play the game, you got to play it loose and relaxed, and being in the fire,” Van Nostrand said. “The really good players like to be in the fire, the high-pressure situations. That’s where you perform the best. You can’t do that if you’re nervous.”

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