Softball

 
UMass's Cullington Has Star Quality

Junior second baseman Stacy Cullington.

Junior second baseman Stacy Cullington.

May 18, 2007

AMHERST -- Stacy Cullington says she could not have scripted it better. The suspense, the drama, and, oh yes, the comic relief.

Cullington skillfully weaved all those elements into a third-inning at-bat that resulted in a grand slam, propelling the host University of Massachusetts softball team to a 9-3 victory over Saint Louis in the Atlantic 10 championship game last Saturday.

"Yeah, it definitely had a mix of everything," said the junior second baseman from Encinitas, Calif., recalling her 15th home run of the season, which established school and A-10 records.

"It was almost like the comedic part of it kind of set up the drama of it," Cullington said, as she sat in the first row of bleachers behind home plate Tuesday at the UMass Softball Complex, where UMass (37-12-1) will play Long Island University (33-20) this afternoon in the Amherst Regional of the double-elimination NCAA Tournament.

"It made for a good at-bat, I guess. A memorable one, at least," said Cullington, who ranks 13th in the nation in RBIs (53) and 14th in home runs. "But I've never remembered each swing in an at-bat as well as I have that one."

The suspense mounted when Cullington, hitting third, stepped to the plate in the third inning of a 1-1 game with nobody out and the bases loaded. She fell behind in the count, 0 and 2, against Billikens starting pitcher Stacy Gillette. "The first pitch was low and I swung really big and I felt like I swung out of my shoes, because both feet came off the ground," Cullington said.

The sight of her power hitter wildly flailing at a first pitch prompted a concerned UMass coach Elaine Sortino to yell "Stacy!" Cullington looked toward the dugout and saw Sortino gesture at her, as if to say, "What are you doing? What's going on?"

Clearly, this was not the same Stacy Cullington who had gone from a team-leading 42 strikeouts in 117 at-bats as a scattershot sophomore (.248 batting average) to a disciplined hitter as a junior (.318) who halved her strikeouts (21) in as many at-bats and led the team in slugging percentage (.752) and total bases (88) entering the A-10 championship.

"I'm fine! I'm fine," Cullington yelled from the batter's box, trying to reassure her coach.

"I was a little shaken by that swing, a little embarrassed," Cullington recalled. "Then the next one was a little outside. Strike two. So I'm 0 and 2, on two pitches, with the bases loaded, and she calls timeout."

"The thing that concerned me was the first swing she took, because Stacy does not swing big at pitches, and she missed it by 6 inches," Sortino said. "The next thing that made it even more concerning was that she took a low pitch for a strike, and now she was 0 and 2, so now what? She assured me she was OK, but I don't know that I necessarily believed her, but I said OK, because that's what she needed to hear from me at that point."

Cullington fouled off the third pitch to the right, fouled off a fourth pitch to the left, then got the count to 2 and 2. Then came an unexpected moment of levity, which seemed to break the mounting tension.

"The third ball comes in and somehow I thought it was ball four," Cullington recalled. "So I threw my bat into the dugout and took two steps toward first and realized, 'Oh no, Stace.' "

"When I saw her walk down to first base on ball three, I was like, 'Yeah, OK, you're really good,' " Sortino said with a chuckle.

With her head bowed, Cullington retrieved her bat. "Everyone was laughing, of course," she said. "I wasn't mortified, but I was embarrassed. I just smiled and took it. I just took it in stride. All I could think of was, 'Everybody probably thinks I'm a total space cadet.' I swung huge on the first one, then I go to 0 and 2 and I tried to walk on three balls. So I'm sure everyone thought I was totally out of it and I wasn't going to do anything."

Her teammates, however, knew otherwise. "I was on first base and I was thinking, 'Aw man, she's going to rope one right here,' " said senior cocaptain Candice Molinari, UMass's leading hitter (.401 average). "I just had a feeling and, sure enough, she rocked it out of here. Right when it hit the bat, we knew it was out."

"Stacy is so good with two strikes, and climbing out of the hole, I knew the pitcher would have to put something near the plate and that Stacy would put it in play," Sortino said.

Which resulted in a dramatic climax to Cullington's eventful at-bat. "The next one, I smoked it," Cullington said, referring to her third grand slam of the season, which easily cleared the scoreboard in left field and kept climbing toward the Mullins Center. "It was a great feeling, actually. It was one of the best hits, I think, I've ever had."

After advancing to the Super Regionals last year in Chicago, where UMass came within five outs of advancing to the College World Series in Oklahoma City before bowing to host Northwestern, the Minutewomen will be expecting more of the same from Cullington when they make their 13th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

UMass will attempt to extend the nation's longest winning streak to 27 games and its home winning streak to 33 in tomorrow's first-round matchup. The winner will advance to the second round tomorrow to face Oklahoma (52-6), ranked No. 1 in this week's ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25, or Colgate (25-22).

"I think this team is patient and I think they have a very, very strong and deliberate sense of purpose and focus," Sortino said. "They know what they have to do and they don't get jittery. They're like that in practice. They're always moving forward and trying to get better. They're kind of unique like that. They're just very steady and very deliberate."

And Cullington, to a certain extent, has come to embody that approach.

" I think if any player was not patient early on, it was Stacy Cullington when she arrived here," said Sortino, who recruited Cullington out of San Dieguito Academy by selling her on UMass's balanced approach to athletics and academics after she considered New Mexico, Yale, Virginia, and Louisiana State. "I don't think she had patience for her own rate of success or failure. I think she had a hard time, and great difficulty, in terms of buying into a system that required focus and discipline.

"The way I see her now, as a junior, is that she's been a very steady leader and she's totally bought in to understanding it's a process and it's not always results-oriented. Because of that I think it's helped her stay on task. She's probably one of the most focused hitters we have in the lineup."

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

 

 

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