- Graham Hays, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
AMHERST, Mass. -- Atlantic 10 championships are almost as much a staple of senior spring at the University of Massachusetts as final exams, commencement and chasing security deposits by filling nail holes with toothpaste. To that end, a pair of run-rule wins against Dayton last weekend moved the current Minutewomen to 16-0 in conference play en route to another regular-season title. Their predecessors won either the regular-season title or conference tournament in each of the past 17 seasons, capturing both 13 times.
In fact, put past and present together and the Minutewomen have won 34 consecutive conference games, a streak dating back almost two full calendar years.
But even with a legacy of success bordering on birthright, this year's young roster hardly needs a reminder that there are no guarantees of the next game, let alone the next win.
Stacy Cullington is one of only two seniors on a team that entered the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25 this week. A four-year starter in the middle infield, the California native set the Atlantic-10 single-season record with 15 home runs in 54 games last season. Coming off that performance, she entered her final season in Amherst with a strong sense of how she wanted to lead a roster that included just four remaining starters from the team that came within a game of the Women's College World Series two seasons ago.
"I really wanted to set a good example for the girls, keep a positive attitude, temper under control," Cullington said. "You know, when things aren't going the team's way, try to keep everyone focused. But mostly setting a good example with myself and trying to work hard every day. I find it's easier to lead by example, and it's easier for girls to respect you if you demonstrate that you practice what you preach."
Unfortunately, on the day the program honored her and fellow senior Lauren Proctor, Cullington's on-field example was limited to playing catch in front of the dugout before the games against Dayton. There the right-hander would catch the ball in her glove, deftly shift the mitt to her right hand, a la Jim Abbott, and make a left-handed return throw. Meanwhile, the cast on her right forearm served mostly as decorative sunblock.
In a game against George Washington on April 5, Cullington fielded a ground ball and went to tag the runner going from first to second. But in using both hands to secure the ball while applying the tag, she caught her right thumb awkwardly in her glove. What she hoped was just a temporary jam turned out to be a torn ligament that required surgery. And in a season that began in frustration, with opponents pitching around her at a rate of nearly a walk per game, the routine grounder carried with it an even more frustrating fate.
"It's really frustrating and sad," Cullington said. "You feel helpless; there's nothing you can really do about it. You think about, 'Oh, I should have just thrown it to first and gotten the out that way.'"
The medical timetable for a return isn't rosy. Cullington said she may be able to play as soon as two weeks after the cast comes off, but the current best-case scenario puts her return date on the same weekend as the NCAA regionals. And despite trying to stay in game shape in any way possible that doesn't involve using her right hand, Cullington admits she's afraid she'll be so rusty after five weeks away from competitive action that she might actually be a detriment to a lineup that has caught fire in recent weeks.
Now an assistant coach at Massachusetts, Jessica Merchant ended her college career at the University of Michigan in fairy tale fashion, with the ball settling in her glove for the final out that clinched the program's first national championship in softball. But even if Cullington's farewell follows a less poetic path, she still has a role to play.
"I personally can't imagine what she's going through mentally," Merchant said. "To not be able to finish out your senior year right now would just be devastating. But you know what, we still need Stacy. We need Stacy to do little things for us. We need Stacy to stay involved at practice and help Carly [Morin], who is playing second base and hasn't had too many starts. So Stacy can still make a tremendous impact even if she's not on the field."
With Cullington in the dugout and Proctor in the outfield, Whitney Mollica is now the de facto voice of experience among the team's position players in the field. It was Mollica who rounded up the five sophomores with whom she shared the infield and delivered an impromptu pep talk when focus seemed to slip in the late stage of Sunday's second game against Dayton. But just as she credited Cullington's presence as a key component in her own on-field development as a freshman, she said the senior's voice still carries the most weight now.
"This year as a senior, she really has stepped up so much as a motivator and a leader," Mollica said. "She knows she can't play right now, but she knows that the team needs to be the best it can, even if she's not playing. So she's one of those people every day that reminds us of the small little things that are going to make a big difference in the end."
The results are impressive. Despite its youth, Massachusetts played as challenging a nonconference schedule as any team in the country. Among the current top-25 teams, Massachusetts has already played No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 Michigan, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 8 Arizona, No. 11 Fresno State and No. 23 Mississippi State, in addition to Auburn, Baylor, DePaul, Florida State and South Florida. The Minutewomen held their own at 4-8 in those games and seven of the eight losses were by either one- or two-run margins.
Far from being traumatized by the experience, some of the newest regulars seem to have benefited from finding out what work was required. Sophomore outfielder Carly Normandin drove in 14 runs in five games last week while hitting from the No. 9 spot in coach Elaine Sortino's order. Sophomore first baseman Sarah Reeves, who had all of two hits last season, has six home runs in 44 conference at-bats this season. And sophomores Whitney Williams and Samantha Salato, while productive regulars last season, have further solidified the top of the order in the leadoff and cleanup spots, respectively.
"I think our younger players have developed a lot more poise and confidence at the plate," Sortino said. "Our short game is starting to open up a little bit; we're able to generate some running plays."
With junior ace Brandice Balschmiter turning in work worthy of All-American consideration in the circle, it won't necessarily take a lot of runs to get back to the super regionals or even back to the World Series for the first time this century. And whenever the season ends, Cullington will be there, whether in the lineup or in the dugout.
The job market back home in California can wait. Cast or not, she's not quite ready to stop being a softball player. That's an example any teammate can follow.
"I'll probably play summer ball," Cullington said of her future plans. "I mean, I love softball and I'll play it as long as I can."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.