What does it take to hold the nation’s best winning percentage entering the NCAA tournament? Leading the nation with a team 0.69 ERA helps, as does having the nation’s top individual pitcher in the ERA category on your staff.

Rollins College lays claim to all of those top rankings. With a 42-2 record, the Tars hold the No. 4 spot in the final regular season NFCA Division II Top 25 Poll. Junior pitcher Hope Bitzer holds a 0.42 ERA that leads all of Division II softball.

Head coach Michelle Frew believes she knows the answer.

“I’ve never had a team that has worked as hard as this team,” said Frew. “It starts in the circle. We have three pitchers that would probably be the best pitcher on a lot of teams and I think that has really helped us. Our number one, Hope Bitzer, hasn’t had to pitch 25-30 games like a lot of other team’s top pitchers. That’s been our strongest point by far.

Bitzer holds an 18-0 record, having appeared in 19 games with 16 starts. She backs up her 0.42 ERA with 144 strikeouts over 116.1 innings in the circle. Staff-mates Kirsten Frame and Amye McIntyre have clearly shared the load. Frame checks in with a 0.64 ERA, 15-1 record and 121 K’s in 99.0 IP, while McIntyre has a 1.25 ERA, 10-1 record and 84 strikeouts in 67.0 IP.

“It’s been nice to know that no matter who is throwing the game, our defense will play the same,” said Bitzer. “With a lot of teams, they play differently depending on who is in the circle. It’s been nice to know that things don’t change on our team.”

Handling this able pitching staff is the Tars biggest offensive threat, senior All-America catcher Christine Roser. Roser, a previous NFCA Diamond Sports Division II Catcher of the Year, is hitting .431 on the season to rank in the country’s top-40, and stands in NCAA Division II’s top-20 in both runs per game (17th, 1.19) and slugging percentage (19th/.808), helping the Tars to a third-consecutive Sunshine State Conference title.

“It makes it easy when you have a group of girls that loves to work hard,” said Roser. “They’re always out there getting in early, leaving late, working on whatever they need to work on. Our coaches have definitely worked hard and pushed them to be better and surpass their expectations.”

The group dynamic among the Tars developed early in the season. Rollins chose to play its first five weekends as far out of region as geographically possible, traveling to Hawaii to face off against BYU-Hawaii, defending NCAA Champion Hawaii Pacific and Chaminade, going 4-1 on the trip.

“As we were planning our schedule to start this season,” said Frew, “we knew we were taking a chance, but we really wanted to make something special for this team. We caught a little flak because we didn’t get to do some regional games that we probably needed to do, but that trip set the tone for our season.

“They are such good kids and they’ve learned to have fun and enjoy the game. I think that’s a big thing. So many times, we get caught up in ‘we’ve gotta do this, we’ve gotta do that,’ but this team is really enjoying playing ball.”

Rollins’ dominance in the circle is helped by the nation’s fourth-best team fielding percentage at .975 for the season.

“If there wasn’t a good defense behind me, the numbers wouldn’t be there,” said Bitzer. “Our outfield has made amazing throws and work so hard on their cut-off points. They save my butt a lot of the time. The infield works hard and they are tops all around the horn. It’s been nice to have so much confidence in the circle, knowing that if a ball is hit and you’ve got runners at second and third with two outs, there’s going to be a play made and you don’t really have to stress about a run scoring. It’s been really easy confidence-wise, knowing that the team has your back.”

A year ago, Rollins finished with a 45-6 record and the SSC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but were unable to advance to Super Regionals, falling twice to Arkansas-Monticello. This season, the Tars swept the Sunshine State Conference’s year-end awards with Roser named Player of the Year, Bitzer Pitcher of the Year, utility player Veronica Alred capturing Freshman of the Year honors and Frew selected as Coach of the Year.

“Coming off of last season, I think our girls put a little pressure on themselves,” said Frew.

“Being here as a senior,” said Roser, “in the past we’ve lost games where we shouldn’t have or we overachieved. But this year, I think that we haven’t lost any of those games where we just didn’t show up to play that day. And I think one through 14, our girls can hit. We have an amazing lineup, amazing defense and amazing pitching.”

As the Tars starting catcher, Roser calls her own games behind the plate, but is quick to credit her coaching staff for their preparation.

“Our coaches spend numerous hours working on a scouting report for every team we face,” said Roser. “That helps a lot with calling my own pitches, because I already have a game plan in mind for each batter.”

The next set of game plans for Frew and her staff will be for NCAA Regionals, as Rollins will play host to West Alabama, Arkansas-Monticello and Tampa in the South 2 Region. The Tars open play on Friday, against West Alabama.

“We have the big goal in mind,” said Bitzer, “but we’re trying not to look past one game or one inning at a time. We mapped out goals in the beginning of the season talking about winning every inning. I feel like that really helps us with working each game at a time and not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”

With the next task at hand clearly in focus, Rollins is getting even closer to that “big goal” of a NCAA title. With teamwork, the Tars will give it their best shot.

“We have a staff,” said Frew of her team. “Two of our pitchers made all-conference (Bitzer on the first team and Frame on second team), and that’s almost unheard of. Usually, a team has one pitcher make all-conference, but we have a staff. Hope hasn’t had to pitch every game. I think that’s the key for our team and our pitching staff. They all support each other. We haven’t had the drama of ‘oh, she’s getting the ball’ or ‘how come I’m not getting the ball,’ That has been key.”