Big Game Matches Big Name; Balschmiter boosts UMass
May 19, 2006
Big game matches big name
Balschmiter boosts UMass
By Marty Dobrow, Globe Correspondent | May 19, 2006
AMHERST -- Back then, she was a young girl with a big name from a small town. In the summer of 1998, the resounding crack of fastball into catcher's glove left 11-year-old Brandice Balschmiter awestruck.
''Wow, she can really throw the ball," Balschmiter remembers thinking. ''I want to be just like her."
The pitcher who sent Balschmiter's jaw dropping was Danielle ''Harry" Henderson, who had just finished her junior year at the University of Massachusetts, where she led the nation in strikeouts. Destined to win the Honda Award as the top collegiate softball player in America the next year, and then to win a gold medal with Team USA in the 2000 Olympics, Henderson was appearing at a clinic in upstate New York. UMass coach Elaine Sortino was also on hand.
''If you grow up and you are as tall as I think you're going to be, look me up and maybe someday you can wear a UMass uniform," Sortino said to the fifth-grader from Newark, N.Y.
Sortino returned to the clinic in subsequent years, and watched the young pitcher grow. In time, Balschmiter topped out at 6 feet 1 inch, with a rocket for a right arm. By her junior year of high school, she was starting to attract national attention.
''I really had hopes that our early relationship would at least give UMass a chance," said Sortino, a Hall of Fame coach with more than 900 wins. ''I felt that she was so home-grown, and I knew that 'Balschmiter' would fit by one consonant up on the scoreboard."
In April of that year, Balschmiter drove with her mother to Amherst to tell Sortino that she was committing to UMass early. The coach described it as ''one of the happiest days of my life."
''After the relationship I had built with the program and the coach, I couldn't have gone anywhere else," Balschmiter said. ''I just couldn't have."
This year, at long last, Balschmiter donned her UMass uniform, and the results have been superb. At noon today, she will throw the first pitch for the 37-14 Minutewomen against Albany (36-11-1) in the NCAA Amherst Regional, one of 16 four-team tournaments around the country. Texas A&M (33-17) will take on Lehigh (41-12) in the nightcap of the double-elimination event.
Coming off an MVP performance in the Atlantic 10 Championship last weekend, Balschmiter enters the game with some gaudy numbers. She is 28-7 with a 0.71 ERA, fifth best in the nation. For historical reference, Henderson's career ERA of 0.70 is No. 1 in school history. Balschmiter's 266 strikeouts represent the fourth-largest season total in UMass annals; the renowned ''Harry" has the top three.
If Sortino had any doubts about starting a freshman pitcher, they were soothed by the fact that her batterymate would be rock steady senior KJ Kelley. A reigning All-American, Kelley is UMass's all-time home run leader, but she is particularly adept at working with pitchers. She has made the development of Balschmiter a top priority. The goal, she says, is ''creating a tunnel."
''Softball is more mental than physical," Kelley explained. ''If you're not mentally focused, your physical skills aren't going to matter. You have to be really locked in, especially as a pitcher. That's a big part of my job, to make sure that Brandice is focused, and that she's just focused with me, not anybody else."
Balschmiter credits her backstop for much of her success. ''KJ is amazing," she said. ''I couldn't imagine doing it without her. She knows exactly what I need back there."
Another key factor for Balschmiter has been expanding her repertoire of pitches. She came in with a blazing fastball, clocked at 74 miles per hour. While that is the equivalent of more than 100 m.p.h. in baseball (since the pitching rubber sits just 43 feet away), it is a pitch that top college hitters can time. The addition of a devastating drop ball and the refinement of her changeup have made her a menace on the mound.
''I feel like I just became a pitcher [this season]," Balschmiter said. ''In high school, I relied mostly on my fastball. No one could hit it."
College hitters are having their struggles with her as well. Now Balschmiter will go up against some of the best as she tries to pitch UMass to the College World Series, where the Minutewomen last played in 1998, led by Henderson.
''I'm going after her," Balschmiter said with a smile. ''I want to be as good, if not better, than she is."