Mollica Swings A Powerful Bat
May 4, 2006
Mollica swings a powerful bat
BY MATT VAUTOUR STAFF WRITER
There's plenty of big things to notice about Whitney Mollica: her team-leading .416 batting average, her 47 runs batted in - already the most ever in a single University of Massachusetts softball season -and her nine home runs, a Minutewoman freshman record.
She's a lock to be Atlantic 10 rookie of the year and has statistics that will get her consideration for the league's player of the year award.
But it's the little things about Mollica that stand out for Elaine Sortino. Her steal of third in the second inning against Charlotte earlier this month wasn't particularly significant in the season or even the game which was shortened to five innings by the mercy rule as UMass won 12-1.
It wasn't even Mollica's biggest contribution that day as she belted a two-run home run to right in the third. But the swipe was a subtle example of Mollica's instincts, which have been particularly impressive given her youth.
'She's not fast, but standing on second base, she saw the pitcher grip the ball for a change-up and stole third,' Sortino said. 'Most kids, you beat them over the head and they wouldn't recognize that by their senior year. She's a baller.'
UMass hosts Harvard for a doubleheader at 3 p.m. today.
Before playing for the Minutewomen for the first time, Mollica drew some curiosity from UMass fans and not because of her impressive numbers at Salem (N.H.) High School. Mollica's grandfather is former major league player, manager and coach Don Zimmer, now a senior baseball adviser for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
New Hampshire isn't usually a hotbed of Division I talent and even though Mollica was the state's Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior, Sortino went to work rebuilding her offensive approach right away.
'When I watch my high school video now, I ask coach, 'Why did you even recruit me?' ' Mollica said laughing. 'My video is so bad. I have no idea what she saw in me. When I watch my video and I see myself on tape now, it's so different. I've really changed my swing a lot since high school.
Sortino has built a Hall of Fame career on recruiting players who were overlooked by everybody else and turning them into standouts. In Mollica she saw an athlete with more potential than polish who loved softball.
'Her maturity impressed me tremendously. So did her love for the game, her tenacity,' Sortino said.
Mollica's transition through the fall and early spring wasn't easy as Sortino helped adjust her hands, her footwork and the angle of her elbow. But as the season arrived, she was comfortable again in the batter's box.
'There were days I'd call home (and say) 'Oh my god, I don't know what I'm doing,' but if you buy in, it just works,' Mollica said.
She wasn't a home-run hitter in high school. Her nine long balls this season are more than the six she hit in her entire high school career. There isn't a fence at Salem's softball field and as Sortino accurately pointed out, Mollica isn't fast.
So a lot of would-be homers were doubles and triples in high school. It didn't occur to Mollica that those might be home runs in another park.
'I never played with a fence, so I'm more surprised at some of the long balls I'm hitting,' she said. 'I've always been a line-drive hitter. I don't go up there thinking about home runs because then I'd likely go up there and pop out. I just try to get in there, stay level and try to hit a line drive in the gap.'
Mollica broke the UMass single-season RBI record Saturday in a doubleheader against Temple when she hit two home runs and knocked in five runs. That gave her 47 RBIs in 35 games. The previous UMass record was held by Kim Gutridge who had 45 RBIs in 59 games in 1998.
Sortino isn't surprised at Mollica's success, just how quickly it came.
'Not this fast. Her footwork worried me,' said Sortino, who raved about the intangibles. 'She's a leader, even though she's so young. She just gets it. Her awareness and her mental tenacity is incredible for a freshman. It's incredible for a senior. We're going to have somebody with real leadership qualities around the program for 3 1/2 years. I find that very exciting. Her instincts are incredible. She does things you don't teach.'
Sortino speculated that some of that came from a lifetime spent around the diamond.
'There's an awareness that has been developing probably since she was 2 years old,' Sortino said.
'I've grown up around it. I've been all over the country watching my grandfather,' she said. 'I played other sports in high school, but this is the sport I love. It's in my blood.'
And it's a sport at which she believes she will become even better.
'I thought I was so knowledgeable in high school, then I got here and I thought I don't know anything. You acquire so much more. Our coaches are great,' Mollica said. 'I want to be the best player I can be for the team. Every week we learn something new. I still have so much to learn.'
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com. For more UMass coverage including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports.