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The Massachusetts softball team’s chances of making a deep postseason run this spring will rely heavily on how far ace pitcher Sara Plourde’s arm can take them.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

That conclusion was made all too apparent last May. Needing a win against Boston University in the NCAA Amherst Regional to extend their season, the Minutewomen entered the game riding high on the shoulders of Plourde.

The weight of a nation that Plourde was seemingly carrying proved to be too much, however, as she pitched just one inning and gave up four runs before being pulled for senior Bailey Sanders. The Minutewomen would lose 10-4 to the Terriers, and it was revealed that Plourde suffered from a hip injury that limited her for a few weeks before their Tournament exit.

Although Plourde led the nation in strikeouts and UMass to its sixth-straight Atlantic 10 championship, it was clear that she was overworked without pitching depth behind her in the rotation.

Then-senior Bailey Sanders, the only other pitcher to see action last season, started just five games and pitched 38.1 innings with a 2-2 record and 6.03 ERA. Conversely, Plourde started 48 games, which included 36 complete games and 311.1 innings pitched.

This year, however, that has all changed, as two freshman pitchers in Lindsey Webster and Caroline Raymond enter the pitching staff with impressive high school resumes behind them. Their additions into the pitching mix will greatly reduce Plourde’s chances of physically breaking down late in the year, leaving her fresher for the postseason while simultaneously developing pitchers for the future.

Webster, a high school star at Bishop Alemay and a native of Northridge, Calif., was a four-year letter winner and was honored as an ESPN Cal-Hi All-State player in 2009 and 2010. As a senior, she threw five no-hitters, including a perfect game and set school records for strikeouts in a game, season and career in her four years.

So far, the transition to the college game has been relatively smooth. She only allowed one earned run and struck out six in a nine-inning 3-1 loss in her collegiate debut against Tulsa on Feb. 18. She is proving game-by-game that the step up to Division I softball hasn’t affected her as of yet.

“I’m a very outgoing person,” said Webster, who has taken a leadership role among a group of seven freshmen this season. “I’m very approachable, and I just expect to fit in naturally and just hopefully be an impact player any way I can.”

Webster’s skills go beyond the pitching mound as well, as she also makes her presence felt as an outfielder, earning her first start in left field against Alabama-Birmingham on March 4. She leads the team with a .400 batting average in 20 at-bats so far this season, which includes a home run and five RBIs.

Plourde can also have confidence in the relief of another pitcher on the staff in Raymond. The Downington, Pa. native was a four-year starting pitcher at Downington West High School and earned a career record of 45-6, including 29 shutouts, 12 no-hitters and four perfect games.
She was a Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year nomination, a Pennsylvania All-State player as a junior and senior, and also was featured in ESPN Rise, a high school sports magazine that highlights star players from across the country.

Raymond has had limited opportunities so far this spring, but is working hard in practice hours on her mechanics and pitching to make the most out of those opportunities when they come.

“I’m just trying to get better, and get on the field eventually,” said Raymond. “[Sara Plourde] is going to throw a lot of innings, but I think it would benefit the team if me and Lindsey could step up and get out there as well.”

Webster and Raymond being able to get on the field this year will certainly help relieve Plourde, but will also pay dividends for the future when Plourde graduates.

As a freshman, Plourde took part in similar circumstances as Webster and Raymond are now. Pitching behind then-senior ace Brandice Balschmiter, Plourde saw limited action, earning a record of 6-1 in 11 appearances, which included 67 strikeouts and a 1.83 ERA.

The experience behind who many consider to be a UMass legend set the stage for an historical sophomore campaign for Plourde, when she went 40-8, earning a 1.30 ERA while striking out a nation-best 556 batters.

“She’s a great leader,” said Raymond. “I look up to her a lot. She works really hard and I think any pitcher would want to have a career like she’s having.”

“She is a phenomenal person, and she’s one of the most humble people I’ve ever met,” said Webster. “She goes out of her way to help me, and as a freshman it means so much to me just from the junior stud pitcher. I admire her work ethic, her compassion for people and really her humility as a player.”

The weight of the team may rest more easily on the shoulder of Plourde this season thanks to the additions of Webster and Raymond. Perhaps the responsibility of passing the torch to the future of Minutewomen pitchers has just began its course.

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at shewitt@student.umass.edu.

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