Plourde finally receives chance to show greatness in national tournament

By Adam Miller

Sophomore Sara Plourde winds up for a pitch against Dayton. She currently has 545 strikeouts, but recorded most of them against Atlantic 10 opponents where she was barely challenged. (Jeff Bernstein/Collegian)

Massachusetts softball was never supposed to be the same after losing its hard-throwing pitcher, Brandice Balschmiter, to graduation.

Few pitchers dominated the game like she did with her sub-1.00 earned run average and baffling speed. Balschmiter had one of the top arms in the country and became arguably the second best pitcher Amherst has ever seen, second only to Danielle Henderson, who led Team USA to a gold medal in 2000.

That was, until sophomore Sara Plourde came along.

She currently owns many of the records Henderson or Balschmiter previously held, boasting a 40-win season and 545 strikeouts.

Aside from simply leading the country in strikeouts, Plourde has the 10th-highest all-time strikeout record in a single season and the fifth pitcher to ever strikeout more than 530 batters. All of this would seem to indicate that Plourde is perhaps the greatest pitcher to ever put on the uniform for the Minutewomen. But her coach, Elaine Sortino says otherwise.

“I think Sara is still a little young,” Sortino said after her team defeated Rhode Island twice on April 27. “I think [Henderson] had a little bit more control, but it was also in her junior and senior year.”

What she means is that you can’t get too wrapped up in the numbers yet; at least not until she experiences her first NCAA tournament this weekend where she will likely meet No. 10 Arizona State. While Plourde is without a doubt one of the nation’s best pitchers, and will probably turn out to be a better pitcher than Balschmiter and maybe even Henderson when her career is over, it’s important not to get too excited with the numbers she’s posting.

At least not yet.

Plourde faced some very good competition early, but was inconsistent. She finished with a no-hitter against Illinois State on Feb. 27 and struck out 22 Texas A&M batters in nine innings on March 20, but had a fair share of games where she struggled too.

That’s not necessarily the best indicator, because she spent most of her first season on the bench, and was still figuring things out the first two months of the season.

Her success in the Atlantic 10, however, is a different story.

She now has an ERA (1.17) in the country’s top 10, pitched 17 shutouts this season, recorded five no-hitters (and many more one-hitters) and finished with countless games where she tallied at least 15 strikeouts.

If she was doing this in the Pacific-10, the Big Ten or any conference known to have multiple Top 25 teams every year, her numbers would make her one of the best collegiate pitchers ever. And while she is one of the best in the country, she has a long way to go before we can start making the argument that she is the next star pitcher for USA Softball.

Although Sortino likes to play up the competitiveness of the A-10, it is nowhere near as intense as what ASU or Florida dealt with to get to the NCAA tournament.

The Minutewomen lost just one A-10 Championship since the 1988 season. UMass’ dominance over the conference has been a given before many of Sortino’s players even knew how to swing a bat.

This year was slightly different from the norm because Fordham is just as good as the Maroon and White, and proved that when it put the Minutewomen in the Loser’s Bracket following a 7-5 win in the Semifinals.

Charlotte showed it can compete with those teams too, but it still isn’t at the same level as the Rams or UMass.

No, the Minutewomen didn’t obliterate every team, and yes, Saint Louis and Dayton gave them a run for their money, but every good team has a bad day. Whoever wins the NBA Championship or Stanley Cup will have losses against sub-.500 teams on their record. It doesn’t make those teams that got lucky a few times during the regular season title contenders.

Plourde went mostly unchallenged since March (with the exception of Fordham). On the rare occasion where she lets up a couple runs and doesn’t get 15 strikeouts, or even 10, it’s as if the world is coming to an end. In other words, she is pretty much unhittable to the majority of the conference.

While watching her strikeout batter after batter in what seems like effortless fashion is fun to watch, the real test of how good she is will come this weekend in an inevitable matchup with the Sun Devils.

Although ASU is the favorite in the Amherst Regional and the 10th best team in the nation, its Pac-10 season hasn’t been pretty. The Sun Devils lost half of their series against conference opponents, which includes losing a series to unranked Oregon State.

Essentially, pulling off an upset to advance to the Super Regionals is much more feasible for the Minutewomen than last year where they had to play Washington, the eventual NCAA tournament champions.

If Plourde continues to be herself and takes advantage of ASU’s recent struggles, she will do something her predecessor did her very first year in Amherst: make the Super Regionals.

It’s going to take more than solid pitching to advance, but chances are if Plourde can limit opponents to no more than two runs, UMass’ offense will probably follow through.

Plourde’s pitching against a team like the Sun Devils will finally give anyone following the Minutewomen some insight into whether we are watching another great pitcher develop in her first year as the team’s ace, or if she is still too young like Sortino says.

Adam Miller is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]