Lewis savors senior season success after adversity-filled ECSU softball career

Willimantic — Jackie Lewis is having a senior season worth savoring until long after it's over.

A starting infielder for the Eastern Connecticut State University softball team, she's playing in her first NCAA tournament. She's helped the Warriors reach the Super Regionals, just two wins shy of advancing to the Division III College World Series.

Lewis, a former Fitch High School standout, is loving every minute with her tight-knit, fun-loving teammates.

"It's been my best season so far," Lewis said on Wednesday. "We've had so much fun. We're the closest team that I've had in my four years. We are all each other's best friends. We love to hang out with each other.

"If people watched us, I'm sure they'd think we're just the weirdest people because we just never stop joking around. It's been a great senior season. I couldn't ask for anything else."

Lewis hopes her joy ride continues.

Eastern (32-11) is hosting Rowan University (33-13) in its first Super Regional appearance, with the best of three series beginning at 2 p.m. Friday at Clyde Washburne Field. The winner advances the national tournament May 23-28 in Tyler, Texas.

The Warriors have won seven straight post-season games, outscoring opponents 33-4. They swept four games to capture the Little East Conference tournament and went 3-0 on the way to winning the NCAA Regional in Medford, Mass.

"We need two more games to go to the College World Series," Lewis said. "That's just crazy to us, because we know now we can win those two games. We have all the talent in the world to do that. We just have to keep playing the way we are. We're really excited to still be playing."

Lewis has made a substantial impact at the plate, batting .282 and with career highs in home runs (two), RBI (20), runs scored (21), stolen bases (six) and games played (41). She's also added value at second base and in the leadership department.

"She's done a great job," coach Diana Pepin said. "She's a leader on the field. She's talkative and knows the game very well. ... She's such a great kid. She just wants the team to be successful and do her part to make her team successful."

Lewis' first two seasons can be summed up in one word: Frustrating.

As a freshman, Lewis tore the ACL in her right knee during a winter break workout. She tried putting off surgery until after the season, opting for rehabilitation. But warming up at a season-opening tournament in Georgia, she had a setback, ending her season.

The injury came less than a year after Lewis collapsed during the national anthem at Fitch's Eastern Connecticut Conference tournament championship game against Stonington at Griswold High School. She was rushed to the hospital and had emergency surgery for an ovarian cyst, which had burst.

A determined Lewis returned in time to finish her high school career on the field, playing in the Class L state championship game, a 4-2 loss to East Haven.

Lewis had never missed an extended period of playing time during her softball career, so sitting out her freshman year was challenging both mentally and physically.

"I definitely was frustrated because I was ready to play in college," she said. "I wanted to keep going. I hate just sitting around. I was like, what else is going to happen? It all worked out, but it was definitely a frustrating long process."

Adversity remained by her side, but in an unfamiliar (at least to her) form.

Lewis struggled mightily during her debut season as a sophomore. She never had an issue hitting in high school and won a state championship. Yet she batted just .132 in limited action, getting 53 at-bats in 33 appearances.

She lost confidence, something that she had no shortage of playing for Fitch.

Thanks to the support of her teammates, family and coaches, she fought through the adversity and grew stronger from it.

Lewis adjusted to the college game and had a terrific junior season, starting all 34 games and batting .346.

Her struggles made her appreciate her successes even more.

"I definitely had my moments where I was very down about it," Lewis said. "My parents and my sisters had to listen to me talk so much about it. Being in that situation for the first time, sometimes I didn't know if I was going to come back to where I was. But I knew that I couldn't not play softball because I'm having a bad season because it's more than just that."

Now she's authoring a happy ending to her career.

Lewis, who has one semester left and plans to be a physical education teacher, contributed two hits and an RBI in Eastern's 5-1 win over top-seeded Tufts in the regional final on Monday.

She's finally getting a taste of success after the Warriors suffered through three straight losing seasons.

"We knew our potential and didn't want to have seasons like we've been having the past few seasons," Lewis said. "I hadn't had any winning seasons. I wanted to go out on top. I wanted to really make my last season my best season."

g.keefe@theday.com

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