The pitch: called strike three.
St. John’s has done it. The Red Storm wins the Big East softball championship for the first time in program history.
Gloves and helmets fly as the team rushes the circle to swarm senior Francesca Carrullo, who dropped to her knees following her third punchout of the game and wound up on the bottom of the pile.
With tears streaming down every awe-stricken face and shrieks of joy filling the air, the moment that eluded the program for 35 years quickly came into focus.
Five years later, it is still the most memorable moment in program history.
The road to glory was not easy for the Red Storm, as they criss-crossed the country for non-conference play. The season began in Florida at the highly-touted USF Classic before the team went west for the San Diego Classic, which featured eleventh-ranked Tennessee and second-ranked Oregon.
Entering their first Big East game, the Johnnies held a 7-13 record. In addition to being well under .500, St. John’s went from 21 active players to 20 after sophomore Alyssa Rusch suffered a season-ending injury.
“The spring of 2015 for me was the first time my kneecap was violently dislocated during a practice before conference play even started,” Rusch recalled. “I was on crutches for over a month, depressed, and in a lot of pain in my recovery journey.”
Two things, however, never wavered. Trust and team chemistry.
“The 2015 season was a roller coaster ride of emotions,” said Shirley Chui, a junior third baseman on the club. “I remember there being a lot of ups and downs, but we got through everything together as a team. We trusted each other on and off the field, which I believe was incredibly important.”
“The 2015 team was a really special group,” former Red Storm pitcher and current St. John’s assistant coach Grace Kramer added. “We were one solid unit on and off the field.”
Beginning with a win over LIU Brooklyn on March 25, the Johnnies turned their season around, rattling off 15 consecutive wins and kicking off conference play with a 12-0 record.
St. John’s swept all three games from Butler, Georgetown, Providence and Seton Hall, while knocking off Stony Brook and Iona in midweek contests.
“When conference play started off, everything was going right,” said Carrullo. “The team was meshing. We were having fun.”
“We set our goals to win each Big East series,” said current head coach Bob Guerriero, who was the team’s assistant coach at the time. “In the opening series at Butler, the momentum began to build after senior Kaitlyn Wilkens came in to pinch-hit and knock across the game-winning run in game one. We just kept winning series.”
The Johnnies were riding high and feeling unstoppable after clinching a spot in the four-team Big East Tournament, but the most pivotal point of its campaign hit the team quickly on their road trip to Omaha.
“We were undefeated in conference play and before our first game with Creighton, we were joking around a bunch and unfocused.” Carrullo recalled. “We wound up losing that game. Our captains had a meeting with us about our behavior and how we cannot take opponents lightly just because we’ve been winning.
“The second game of our doubleheader we came back and won 11-0 in five innings and I threw my first and only no-hitter,” she added. “It was the perfect learning moment for our team and we were able to steer our train back on track.”
St. John’s closed out the regular season with a pair of wins against Villanova to set a program-record with 16 league victories, capture the team’s first-ever regular season Big East title and earn the top seed in the conference tournament.
With the team readying for Rosemont, the players couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. The team didn’t feel complete without Rusch, who was ineligible to travel with the team throughout conference play and the postseason due to her dislocated knee.
With a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line, her teammates were not about to leave her behind.
“Erin Burner and Ellen Czuba, our team captains, coordinated with all of my teammates, each chipping in and buying a plane ticket that allowed me to travel and be with them,” Rusch said. “They then worked with the coaches to get me a pass so I could sit in the dugout with everyone else and not just in the stands.
“Every moment of the championship was special, but the heartfelt gesture from my team has meant more to me than I can put in words,” she added. “Their exemplary and selfless leadership was a huge X factor in us winning.”
With all 21 players in Rosemont, the Red Storm was eager to avenge its loss to Villanova in the regular-season finale when it faced the Wildcats in the semifinals.
St. John’s went down early, 2-1, in the opening frame. With the tying run on third in the bottom of the first, play was suspended due to rain, putting a 19-hour delay on a game the Red Storm went on to win, 5-4, the following day.
“We knew coming back the next day and trying to win it all would be hard, but we knew we could do it,” Carrullo said. “We just had to stay locked and do what we do best. For my teammates and I between the games we were joking and having fun, creating that good positive energy to continue to carry us through.”
Once Carrullo was told she would be starting the championship game, she stepped into unchartered territory. The Johnnies’ starter had only seen an inning of work in the postseason and was about to pitch the most important game of her career.
After the Red Storm gained a 1-0 lead in the first frame, the “roller coaster of emotions” started to sink in. Seton Hall tagged Carrullo and the Johnnies with four runs in the top of the second to go ahead by three, 4-1. Just when the Pirates jumped into the driver’s seat, the home team pulled even in the bottom half with a three-run inning to knot the game at four.
“It was hard to not be up and down emotionally, but our team never lost faith and it was almost a feeling like everyone knew we were going to win this war,” Carrullo said. “It was just a matter of when.”
“We were all literally at the edge of our seats during the entire game,” Chui recollected. “It was ‘rally caps on’ and you better believe we kept them on for the entire game.”
After allowing one run to Seton Hall in the top of the fourth to give the Pirates a lead, the Johnnies answered with a pair of tallies to go up, 6-5. Following another run in the fifth to take a two-run advantage, 7-5, Carrullo and the Johnnies were just six outs away from the title.
The senior out of Warrington, Pennsylvania, sat the Pirates down in order in the sixth, continuing to wither the Pirates’ chances at a comeback.
The first three were easy. The final three, filled with shakes. Seton Hall started to mount a comeback by putting runners on first and second.
“The final out was the most nerve-wracking out of my life,” Carrullo said. “I was legit shaking, but I knew I could get this girl. All I had to do was let her put it on the ground because she was a slapper, and my defense would back me up.
“Due to me shaking with adrenaline, the pitch that was called was not what I executed but I just wanted a strike and that’s what I got,” she added.
A pitch rose past the Pirates’ slapper Sarah Collins, ending the game and starting the festivities.
“It was the most surreal moment of my athletic career,” Carrullo remembered. “It was absolutely a team effort and couldn’t have been done without each and every one of us.”
After years of seeing their opportunity come and go, the senior class got the farewell the underclassman hoped they would get.
“We had an extraordinary set of seniors that year who really set the bar high when it came to how we were going to function as a team,” Kramer said. “They weren’t leaving St. John’s without that ring, and the rest of us weren’t going to let them leave without it.”
“For me, I was ecstatic, but I felt more excitement for the seniors, who really wanted to end on a high note,” Chui added. “After we had won the semifinal game, I felt a sense of unfinished business, almost like we weren't done until we got what we wanted and that was the Big East Championship.”
“Our players overcame the odds and showed absolute grit in the championship game,” said Guerriero. “They never gave anything away, earned every win up until that point and it was a magical moment.”
Editor's Note: This article was contributed by the St. John's Athletic Department.