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UMass softball boasts pitching trio bound for stardom

(Magda Niznikiewicz/Collegian)

After starting the season 3-14, the Massachusetts softball team has been on an impressive hot streak over the last few weeks, winning 12 of its last 15 games.

Over that stretch, the UMass pitching staff has been absolutely lights out. The Minutewomen boast an impressive rotation that features an established superstar, a quietly dominant newcomer and a young, raw talent waiting to make an impact of her own.

The Ace

Very few people have more fun playing softball than Meg Colleran.

Starting against Boston University March 30, Colleran stepped to the rubber on her home field for the first time in nearly a year. Buzzing with energy, Colleran could barely stifle a smile in the circle through her first couple of innings.

“I was just so excited,” Colleran said. “I love playing at home. There’s nothing I love more than pitching and being on Sortino Field, so being able to do that for the first time this year, it’s what I live for.”

This is not an unusual thing for Colleran. A week later, as she threw an inning in relief and later tossed a complete-game shutout in a doubleheader against Fairleigh Dickinson, it was more of the same. Smiling as she took her warmup pitches before innings, smiling between batters, smiling on her way out to the circle, smiling as she came back to the dugout.

“We joke about it all the time too,” UMass coach Kristi Stefanoni said. “Megan smiles when she base runs, she smiles when she hits, she smiles when she throws, there’s rarely a time where you don’t see her smiling, and we joke about it with her all the time. She loves this game, she loves UMass and she loves her teammates, and it’s clear in how she talks about it and in the expression she wears on her face. She’s just a happy person when she’s doing what she loves.”

Colleran’s enthusiasm and kindness — Stefanoni calls her “a caretaker, a caregiver” — has made her a popular leader in the locker room.

“We call [Colleran] the mom,” freshman Quinn Breidenbach said. “Because she has so much experience and she’s so loving and caring. When we came in she was like ‘I’m so excited to have you guys here.’”

But make no mistake; for all of her enthusiasm, her warm personality and her borderline goofy demeanor when she throws, Colleran is a hitter’s nightmare.

A junior righty from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, Colleran was a bona-fide superstar in her high school days, posting a 57-19 record with a 0.79 career ERA and 790 strikeouts in four years, hurling three no-hitters on her way to a Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year award and three consecutive Boston Herald All-Scholastic selections. Her transition to the college game wasn’t immediately seamless, but a forgettable freshman year gave way to a superb sophomore campaign, and so emerged one of the most dominant pitchers in the Atlantic 10.

This year, however, a rocky start for the Minutewomen ran parallel to a rocky start for Colleran. Colleran struggled to find consistency on the mound early on, but has returned to form in recent weeks in a big way.

Colleran’s earned run average was north of 6.00 just weeks ago, but now sits at 2.91 after a series of excellent outings. Colleran also began the season with a 1-8 record in the circle, but before taking a loss in Saint Louis on Sunday, she notched seven consecutive wins to bring her record to 8-9.

“Our pitching has definitely come to a point where it’s a lot more consistent than it was at the beginning of the year,” Colleran said. “I know for me personally that’s how I feel, I feel like I’ve finally settled in, to be the pitcher that I was last year, and that I want to be for this team.”

Colleran, an All-A-10 First Team selection last season, broke her personal eight-game losing streak with a complete-game, three-run performance against UC Davis March 11 before allowing zero earned runs against Lehigh four days later. She had another one-run, complete-game win against BU March 30, another shutout against George Washington, a complete-game, two-run victory against the same GW team, followed by another one-run complete game against Fairleigh Dickinson. Over the past weekend, Colleran started twice against Saint Louis, going the distance in both and holding the Billikens to a single run on both occasions to cap off a scintillating eight-start stretch.

Colleran’s numbers over that span? 7-1, a 0.96 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 58.1 innings of work, holding opponents to a .174 batting average. When Colleran is locked in, dominance invariably follows.

She has been absolutely dazzling over the last few weeks, and you can bet she was smiling the entire time.

Colleran’s success, however, was to be expected. The surprise this year is the success of freshman Candace Denis.

The Revelation

A native of Malakoff, Texas, Candace Denis has been solid at the plate this year. While batting .275 with a homerun and 10 runs batted in to her credit, Denis is a legitimate threat on the base paths, having stolen 20 bases on 21 attempts this year.

Then she steps into the circle, and solid turns to stellar.

Denis has been excellent for UMass all season, posting a 2.02 ERA and holding opponents to a miniscule .183 batting average in 13 starts. Denis has been a strikeout machine, setting down 72 batters on strikes in 90 innings.

Denis’ performance in her first season of college softball has been a pleasant surprise for the Minutewomen, but her numbers are even more impressive considering that she wasn’t expected to throw much in the first place.

“I am [surprised],” Stefanoni said. “When she was being recruited, she was kind of a utility player, so looking at her was like ‘oh great, we have this option that she can throw in case we need it.’ Having Meg, bringing in Quinn [Breidenbach] and having Candace, knowing she was a third baseman, a shortstop and an outfielder, pitching on top of it was a plus. But now that she’s in the starting rotation, and she’s throwing the way that she’s throwing, I’m surprised, but it’s a good surprise.”

Denis, for her part, had confidence in her ability in the circle.

“I wasn’t really expecting much pitching time,” Denis said. “So it was surprising to see this much time. But I didn’t necessarily doubt my skills when I got that time. [Assistant coach] Chelsea [Plimpton] has prepared me very well.”

Denis has been a workhorse this season, and is second on the Minutewomen in innings pitched behind only Colleran, and has gone the distance in 10 of her 13 starts. All those innings also help take some of the burden off of Colleran who, in the absence of a partner like Denis, threw 239.1 innings last season.

“She has really, really been a huge asset to the staff,” Colleran said of Denis. “Working with her is great, I think we really work well together. It’s definitely helped me out a lot this year, having her.”

Even Denis’ losses are impressive. Throwing against Central Arkansas March 4, Denis allowed no earned runs and three hits to the Sugar Bears, striking out nine batters in 10.1 innings of work. Central Arkansas scored two unearned runs to pick up a 2-1 win, and Denis was credited with a loss in one of her best outings of the season.

But even with Colleran’s return to dominance in the last few weeks and Denis’ surprising brilliance this season, the two of them might not even have the highest ceiling on the pitching staff. There’s a third cog in the UMass rotation, one with a high school résumé every bit as impressive and eye-popping as Colleran’s. The most potential, and the key to taking this team to another level, may just lie in the right arm of Breidenbach.

The Prospect

Breidenbach’s high school accomplishments are nothing short of ridiculous.

A right-handed hurler like Denis and Colleran, she has spent the last four years terrorizing every batter in the state of Washington. By the time she graduated from Enumclaw High School, she’d been named the 2015 Washington Gatorade Player of the Year, earned multiple all-star and all-area honors from various news outlets and led her team through multiple runs to the Class 3A state title game.

Oh, and she racked up 789 strikeouts in four years as a Hornet.

If those sorts of credentials sound familiar, it’s because they’re eerily similar to Colleran’s.

But just as Colleran did two years ago, Breidenbach has struggled to find her footing in college ball. Having only started twice this season, she’s posted a 5.00 ERA in 28 innings in the circle.

“It’s really tough when you’re coming in as a freshman and you’re asked to take on a starting role,” Stefanoni said. “Quinn’s had a little bit more wiggle room. The first thing to note is that it’s difficult for a new player to come in like that and not have any experience and not know what to expect.”

And though she hasn’t performed to her own expectations this season, Breidenbach could not have a better role model pitching in front of her.

“I talk to [Meg] a lot,” Breidenbach said. “Especially in pre-season because I was struggling and I was like, ‘What did you do to get through this?’ ‘What did you tell yourself?’ because when you go from being so successful in one place, and you come here … sometimes it feels like rock bottom. And I know it’s not, and I know it’s just progress, but sometimes I don’t see it that way, and she just talked about managing yourself, and getting your mind in the right place to know that you’re going to fail more times than not when you’re a freshman and you don’t have that experience. She really just talked to me about letting yourself know that you’re a good pitcher and you have succeeded in the past.”

Breidenbach is undeniably talented. For her, it seems like a matter of when rather than if, and she certainly has the mentality to make the leap to collegiate stardom. While Colleran is warm and enthusiastic and Denis, though kind when you meet her, approaches the game with a sort of quiet intensity, Breidenbach is a force of personality; talkative, energetic and fiercely competitive.

Her eyes light up when competing is the topic of conversation, like when she talks about the bullpen competitions the three partake in.

“I really thrive in those kinds of settings,” Breidenbach said. “When I’m in a place where I can just compete and just throw and hit my spots I really, really thrive and I love it. So we play musket [similar to HORSE in basketball], and it’s super, super competitive. I always wanted to beat everybody.

“I beat Meg [one day], actually. That was the highlight of my fall,” she said with a laugh. “I was so excited when I beat Megan, because I look up to her so much, in so many aspects.”

While Colleran has been spectacular of late and Denis has been dominant all season, this team could have another gear, and it might depend on Breidenbach. Assuming Colleran does what she always has, and Denis’ breakout year is for real — if Breidenbach becomes the pitcher she can be, the UMass pitching staff will be a force to be reckoned with.

“[I have] a lot of confidence in Quinn and that she’s going to figure this out,” Sefanoni said. “It may be in the next two weeks, it may not be until next season, and that will obvious be up to Quinn and how she handles the next two weeks of the season.”

The Minutewomen are 12-3 since they lost to UC Davis March 10. It’s been an impressive month, but they may only be scratching the surface.

With all three of these girls set to return next spring, this may only be the beginning.

Amin Touri can be reached at atouri@umass.edu.

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