It was March 30 of last year when I watched my first live Massachusetts softball game.
Under sunny skies and chilly temperatures, I took my media seat at the table to the left of the press box not knowing what to expect. I had never even been to a softball game, let alone be carrying the responsibility of covering one for a newspaper.
As a kid growing up south of Boston, it was all about baseball. You were either a Red Sox fan or an annoying Yankees fan who just wanted to stand out against a backdrop of Sox fans. Softball didn’t get paid much attention in the northeast the same way it has been given attention down south, where there is warm weather year-round.
But in light of that, I came to realize at that first game that although softball fields are a lot smaller than baseball fields and softball games are a bit shorter than baseball games, the ingredients to win remain the same across the board.
Team success can be measured in three categories. At the plate, you need a healthy mix of small ball and the occasional long ball to score runs. In the field, error-free defense is critical. And most importantly, on the mound, dominating pitching can help put a team over the top.
And at that first game last year, I quickly learned that the UMass softball team had the latter covered.
I knew Sara Plourde was good, but I didn’t know she was that good. I watched in awe as she completely dominated the circle, mowing down the opposing Dartmouth lineup with 16 strikeouts and tossing a no-hitter as she led the Minutewomen to a 1-0 victory over the Big Green.
But what floored me even more than her commanding performance on the mound was the shear normality that her feat was treated with.
Growing up and watching professional baseball, I was taught that no-hitters were a pretty big deal. It was a rare accomplishment that didn’t happen very often – so rare that even some of the best pitchers ever didn’t even get one in their careers. And when the event did happen, it was absolute pandemonium on the field. Dugouts would clear and teammates would mob the pitcher at the mound in celebration of what he had just achieved.
But on that March afternoon, it was treated as nothing more than routine. After the last out was made, Plourde jogged off the field and dished out high-fives and fist bumps to her teammates like it was any normal victory. No big deal. Just another day at the office. Good win, ladies.
As I learned over the course of the season and many others have during her career at UMass, Plourde’s dominance in the circle can be summed up in one word: routine.
In only the second start of her career as a freshman, she pitched her first career no-hitter in a road game at Dayton. Let that sink in for a second. As a 19-year-old freshman, in her second collegiate start ever, she threw a no-hitter at a stadium in Ohio that she had never played at before. That’s not too shabby.
That game set the table for what has been a phenomenal career for her in a Minutewomen uniform. As a sophomore, she won 40 games and led the country with 556 strikeouts. Last year, she won another 27 games and struck out 498 batters, again leading the country.
In her senior season, it’s just been more of the same so far. She’s already thrown another no-hitter against No. 17 Georgia Tech to make it 10 for her career. Let that sink in too – 10 no-hitters in about three years. And she has a lot of games left, so there’s likely more to come.
Plourde’s 12.4 strikeouts per seven innings also rank first in the country right now. To put that into perspective, imagine how hard it is for MLB pitchers to pitch a complete game, let alone get 10 strikeouts in one game. Now consider that 12.4 strikeouts per seven innings equates to about 16 strikeouts per nine innings. Now imagine an MLB pitcher throwing a complete game and 16 strikeouts every time he started. That’s how dominant Plourde is.
In 19 appearances this season, she already has 196 strikeouts which, you guessed it, leads the country. And entering this afternoon’s home-opening doubleheader against Dartmouth, she is only seven strikeouts away from passing Danielle Henderson for the most in UMass history. Passing Henderson would put Plourde at 14th on the career strikeouts list in NCAA history and she has a good chance at cracking the top 10 by the end of the season.
When Plourde graduates this year, it’ll be hard to argue that she wasn’t the best pitcher to ever put on a UMass uniform. Only Henderson and Brandice Balschmiter can hold a candle to her, and while some may argue that one or the both of them are better, Plourde has to be in the discussion.
But it’s safe to say that Plourde is a pretty rare breed when it comes to pitching, especially at a place like UMass. Looking up and down on the list of the greatest softball pitchers of all-time, mostly all of them come from warm weather schools down south and who can blame them? Most of them probably grew up down there playing year-round and naturally getting better than northerners who are stuck inside most winters because of the cold and snow. No one wants to move up north after that.
But something must be said for the way head coach Elaine Sortino has transformed UMass into a perennial softball powerhouse. The Minutewomen are consistently playing in the NCAA tournament despite being from the northeast, and a big reason for that is Sortino’s ability to recruit players like Plourde to play for the program.
When Balschmiter graduated in 2009, it was debated whether the team would see another pitcher like her again. Then Plourde took over. Debate over. Now, three years later, as Plourde gets ready to graduate, we’re asking the same question. But if there’s anything that recent history can tell us, another pitcher of her caliber may be waiting in the wings to pick up where she leaves off.
Who knows? It may just become a routine.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.