Out Of Her Head, Over The Fence
May 11, 2007
Throughout most of the 2006 softball season, Stacy Cullington would walk out of the UMass Softball Complex feeling frustrated and disappointed. Frustrated with how she played that day, and disappointed in herself.
Cullington's sophomore season with the Massachusetts softball team was not going how she, or anyone else, expected.
In 2005, the Encinitas, Calif., native burst onto the scene as a freshman for UMass, batting .311 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs while splitting time between second base and shortstop.
But something happened before the following season, and the learning curve went flat. Cullington returned from a summer at home in California and just could not find her swing.
She limped her way to a .248 batting average, her home runs (five) and RBIs (24) dipped and she was not getting on base nearly as much. It was clear she was not the same hitter as the year before.
"I was a mental case," Cullington says. "Coming off your freshman year, you come back as a sophomore, and you think you know everything. But then you get a wake up call that, no, you really don't."
That wake up call came when Cullington realized the hits just didn't come as easily in Year 2. She nearly doubled her strikeout total from her freshman year, leading the team with 42.
Cullington knew she could hit the ball - she was a two-time offensive MVP at her high school, San Dieguito (Calif.) Academy, and was an offensive leader for the Minutewomen as a freshman - but for some reason the more she swung, the more she missed.
No, her problem wasn't physical. The adjustment she needed to make was mental. UMass coach Elaine Sortino watched Cullington struggle through her sophomore year, but now watches her junior thrive, in her best season to date.
"I think last year, Stacy had no patience whatsoever, and I think that's the difference in her," Sortino says. "She's learned that you have to be patient, particularly as a hitter."
If you watched Cullington swing the bat this year, you'd never know she had fallen into what so many refer to as the "Sophomore Slump."
Cullington is currently hitting .325 and leads the team with 48 RBIs. She tied the team's single-season home run record with 14, and has also cut her strikeouts down to a career-low 21 this season.
"I feel more confident, more mature," Cullington says. "It seemed like it happened without me even knowing it. I guess that's how it's supposed to happen."
The reason Cullington didn't know that her turnaround was happening is that it started as soon as she stopped thinking about it. In 2006, No. 13 was concerned about No. 13.
After a standout freshman season, Cullington thought she was ready for it all. Those thoughts were quickly dismissed the following season and were replaced by worries about the last game, the last at-bat, the last pitch.
She couldn't shake it, and as the season progressed, it just got worse. The 2006 version of the Minutewomen went farther than any team since the late 90s. But as the Maroon and White chased its fourth-ever Women's College World Series appearance, Cullington was still chasing her swing.
Like any freshman, Cullington spent her rookie season getting acclimated to college softball. With no expectations coming in, she learned from Sortino and the other coaches, and thrived on her physical abilities alone.
As a sophomore, Cullington had to handle a larger part of the game mentally, and she also returned to Amherst with expectations of her own.
"I just got so low," Cullington says, "and it was my own fault. It wasn't that I couldn't bat, it was that I wouldn't let myself bat."
Both Cullington and Sortino agree that Cullington was physically ready to play collegiate ball when she left California for the East Coast. But mentally, there was plenty of work to be done. Plenty of learning, plenty of preparing, and plenty of time for Cullington to convince herself she really is that good a softball player.
Sortino worked with her put her mental game on-par with her physical game, waiting for the rest of her to catch up. But rather than focus on selecting better pitches to swing at, or knowing where to throw the ball in a given situation, Cullington was caught up in her last strikeout, or the error she made on the last play. And it stifled her development.
As her sophomore season progressed, Cullington began to let the thought of a "Sophomore Slump" creep into her head. Whether she wanted to call it that or not, she was slumping in her second year with the team. But putting those fearsome words together only heightened the problems she faced.
"The more I tried not to have a sophomore slump, the more I did, and I'm going to kill whoever put that thought into my head," she jokes.
Throughout the season, Sortino refused to let Cullington believe that anything remotely close to a sophomore slump was happening to her. The long-time softball coach and NFCA Hall of Famer has coached so many players that she knew it was all in Stacy's head.
Eventually, everything Sortino said began to sink in. Even before the 2006 season came to a close, Cullington climbed her way out of the rut she spent most of that spring digging into.
In the regionals of the NCAA Tournament, held in Amherst last spring, Cullington had a breakthrough.
It first showed up in the second round against Lehigh. Cullington went 0-for-2 in the game, but the pair of walks she drew in extra innings showed just how much patience she gained since the start of the season.
After grounding out in the first inning and striking out swinging in the fifth, Cullington took a team-first approach to her third at-bat.
With two on and one out in the eighth inning of a scoreless game, the Patriots opted to intentionally walk UMass' cleanup hitter, KJ Kelley, loading the bases for Cullington. Instead of dwelling on the pressure of being the batter Lehigh chose to attack, she realized what she could do to get the Minutewomen ahead.
She battled her way into a 3-1 count and watched the fourth ball hit the catcher's glove. The walk forced in the first run of the game.
The two teams battled back and forth, and in the 10th, her number was called again. After Kelley drew a walk of her own, Cullington fought the count full and loaded the bases with her second consecutive walk.
UMass went on to score four runs in the innings and held on for the 6-4 victory.
In the final game of the tournament, the Minutewomen met the Patriots again. This time, it all came together for Cullington.
After watching a third strike come across the plate in the second, Cullington was determined to make it work for her in the fourth.
With a 1-0 lead and two outs, Sortino pulled Cullington aside before the at-bat.
"I had done nothing [leading up to the at-bat]," Cullington says. "[Sortino] came up to me and said, 'Listen, we need you. You need to wake up and stop getting in your own way. And when she throws an outside pitch, just swing at it.'"
"I went up in my next at-bat and said to myself, 'Just swing.' I meant don't strike out, but I told myself to 'just swing.'"
Cullington liked the first pitch she saw and drove it right back up the middle, keeping the inning alive. A speedy Michea Holness came out to pinch run for Cullington, and came around to score to extend the UMass lead. It was exactly what Sortino had been looking for.
"It was just a good hitter doing what they do best - being patient, and going with the pitch," Sortino says, recalling the moment immediately.
The Minutewomen held on for the 3-0 win and advanced in the NCAA Tournament.
Instead of looking for the grand slam, or worrying that she would be the third out of the inning in a tight game, "Big Red," as she's known to her teammates, did exactly what the team needed her to do, not what she wanted to do.
When the season was over, the Minutewomen had fallen to Northwestern in a best-of-three series in the NCAA Super Regionals. That was the end of May. By the time the 2007 season had come around, Cullington found her confidence.
Now a junior, she realizes she can no longer worry about what she is doing on the field. She has a large role in the leadership of the team, and helped in the development of players like freshman Whitney Williams, who now occupies the shortstop position Cullington often played the last two years.
Cullington spends less time thinking about her own at-bats, the groundballs that come to her side and the home run record she was inadvertently chasing, and more time thinking about how the team will get past Fordham in today's Atlantic 10 Semifinal.
"It's more about the team and not me struggling with my own stuff," Cullington says. "Freshman year I was come-and-go with my confidence, and then sophomore year it wasn't there.
"But this year, I don't have time to think about my own confidence because I'm worried about the team. I can't focus on myself as much as I have in the past because I have a responsibility to the team. I think I just finally realized that."
The Minutewomen are once again in the NCAA hunt and are currently battling in the A-10 Championship. But this time, Cullington is no longer one of the youngsters worried about the little things. She's focused on the next opponent and making it to the next round.
And along the way, she's become one of the cornerstones of a powerful UMass offense.
But would her breakthrough junior year, which had her in the running for A-10 Player of the Year, have happened if Cullington hadn't experienced her tumultuous sophomore campaign? Probably not.
As one of the team's MVPs of the 2007 season, she says she has no regrets.
"I'd like to say I would go back and change it, but I think if I did, it would make me different than I am today," Cullington says. "I highly doubt that if I was this mature as a freshman, my physical skills would have allowed it. I needed to go through those two years to have my mental breakthrough."
The Minutewomen have returned to the postseason this year, and once again, they need their red-headed slugger out there making plays.
And this time, she knows just what she needs to do.
Jeremy Rice can be reached at email@example.com.
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