Angela Tincher pitching in with Terps
Former Virginia Tech standout makes transition into coaching
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Three years after Angela Tincher made fact out of a pitching performance more appropriately the province of folklore, a steady stream of University of Maryland hitters march toward the batter's box and spray her offerings around Robert E. Taylor Stadium like so many batting practice pitches.
Yet if the contrast suggests a pitcher whose time has come and gone, it does so only because Tincher controls the hands of the clock.
As music blares over the speakers and bounces off the bleachers in an otherwise empty stadium, the Terrapins treat Tincher's pitches like batting practice because that's precisely what it is. The same pitcher who wore the maroon and orange of Virginia Tech when she no-hit Team USA in 2008, ending a 185-game winning streak in pre-Olympic exhibitions in which the national team outscored opponents 1,475-24, now stands in the circle as an assistant coach wearing a gray-and-red Maryland sweatshirt and serving up hittable pitches from behind a protective screen.
She arrived at the park on this day with her glove, tucked away in a backpack loaded with other odds and ends, but also toting a double-decker Tupperware platter of cupcakes, the treats testimony to freshman Ashley Czechner's winning a share of ACC pitcher-of-the-week honors. Almost certainly still the best pitcher in practices this season as one of Maryland coach Laura Watten's assistants, Tincher has nonetheless acquired a new nickname in her first months of retirement.
"I call her 'Mom' most of the time," Czechner said of the pitching coach, who at 25 is shifting gears at the same age Dwight Howard, Felix Hernandez and Alex Ovechkin hit their primes.
Tincher burst on the scene during an unforgettable senior spring in 2008, first shutting down and shutting out Team USA at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City and later returning to the sport's signature venue as the driving force behind Virginia Tech's first trip to the Women's College World Series. She was a phenomenon, beating Michigan in Ann Arbor twice in the same day to win a super regional and striking out 28 batters in 15.2 innings while allowing just two earned runs in two losses against Texas A&M and Florida in the World Series.
But as meteoric as it seemed, an ascent whose trajectory matched that of her rise ball didn't emerge out of the ether. The 2,149 career strikeouts that rank her third all time in NCAA history behind Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman (she's second only to Osterman in strikeouts per seven innings) were a product not just of four stellar college seasons, but at least a decade before in which pitching was her priority.
After trying the professional routes available after college, including a season with the Akron Racers of National Pro Fastpitch, another with a team in Japan, and time with USA Softball -- endeavors that demand all the time and geographic commitments of pro sports with little in the way of financial security -- the math no longer added up for her. At the end of last summer, she felt like it might be time to walk away from playing. As spring moves again toward summer, the high season of pro and international competition, she still feels doing so was the right decision.
"I think I am at a point where I sacrificed a lot of things for softball. And I don't regret one minute at all; I'm glad I did," Tincher said. "But I'm kind of ready to maybe make some time for other things in my life as well -- try to do both."
After returning from Japan in the fall of 2009, she found herself in Syracuse, where her boyfriend, now fiancé, was enrolled in graduate school. She reached out to Syracuse coach Leigh Ross to see if there were camps or clinics in the area to which she might be able to contribute. As it turned out, Ross needed a pitching coach, and not only was Tincher an uncommon talent, but also the uncommon soul willing to spend January and February in the snow in Syracuse.
"I didn't really know what I wanted to do," Tincher said. "My major was in finance, but I couldn't see myself sitting behind a desk immediately, either. So I wanted to stay involved with softball as long as possible."
Led by ace Jenna Caira, the Orange won the Big East tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. When a full-time coaching position opened last summer at Maryland, several hours from her Virginia hometown and part of her ACC softball roots, Tincher stuck with coaching, even as she decided to stop playing competitively.
"She's so humble and so down to earth -- so real," Watten said. "I just knew that she'd be able to connect with the kids really well because of that. I knew her work ethic, I knew her mentality and I knew she's a competitor -- but also she communicates really well. She's just good people to be around."
The present beneficiaries are three Maryland pitchers who collectively rank in the top 20 nationally in team ERA.
Maryland senior Kerry Hickey once squared off against Tincher on the field, coming on in relief for the Terrapins as a freshman in a loss against the Hokies in 2008. She recalled admiring the All-American's rise ball at the time, also the bread-and-butter pitch of Hickey's repertoire. But even among rise-ball pitchers, emulating Tincher's version is a fool's errand. More helpful is the young coach communicating what went into that pitch and anything else she threw.
"She works a lot on specifics and details, and really mechanical things and form," Hickey said. "It really helped me a lot because that's how I grew up pitching, how I learned. I really looked at the finer things and used video and everything to really break down the motion and get the most out of your body -- that's what she had to do. I was never really tall and she's not very [tall], so you really have to use all your body and she was really helpful in that aspect."
That master practitioners do not always make master instructors is an old sports adage. What comes easy for great players, the line of thinking goes, is precisely what makes it difficult for them to explain to others how to do it. Like a lot of old adages, it's probably true only often enough to keep getting repeated. Osterman has already enjoyed a successful stint as a pitching coach at DePaul. Lisa Fernandez is an unmistakable presence in the dugout for defending champion UCLA. Former Arizona ace Nancy Evans remains one of the most familiar names in pitching instruction. And the list goes on. The move Tincher made is not unprecedented in softball.
Nevertheless, there is something rare about a pitcher as gifted as she is who also proves to be such a natural communicator.
Tincher never really fit comfortably in the mold of superstar pitcher. She wasn't hyped as the next great thing from before she was old enough to drive. She wasn't the subject of a recruiting battle between traditional powers. She isn't an imposing, long-limbed 6-footer like so many strikeout pitchers. She didn't wear sunglasses, eye black, a glittery headband or shiny jewelry in the circle. She just pitched. And struck a lot of people out while she was at it.
She had a star's talent, to be sure, but her mannerisms were always those more suited to a director than a, well, diva.
"I think you do have to be flexible because something that works for me isn't going to work for everybody else, and vice versa," Tincher said. "My dad gives lessons now and I was around that a lot -- when I was in high school, I would help him out with lessons, or through college I would do clinics and things like that. So I've always been teaching. I think getting that background and working a lot of camps and clinics and just getting used to instructing and how to verbalize things, I think that helped. It's one thing to feel it and to do it; it's another to be able to say it."
She had a lot to work with at Maryland, inheriting two pitchers in Hickey (21-12, 1.67 ERA last season) and Kendra Knight (13-12, 1.70 ERA last season) who were among the best in the ACC last season. But whether it's Hickey talking about mechanics or Knight talking about pitching mentality, both readily point to specific ways that Tincher's presence has helped them. The numbers back up such sentiments, with Hickey's strikeout rate on the rise and the opponent's batting average against Knight on the decline.
But perhaps the best indication of the effect is Czechner, the freshman who has an 11-2 record with a 1.55 ERA and 108 strikeouts against 17 walks in 81.1 innings; she often comes in as an invaluable bullpen option.
"She's definitely helped me with my movement of pitches, also my location and just my consistency," Czechner said. "I came in here as more like a rise-ball pitcher and now I throw pretty much all my pitches now pretty consistently, which I've always wanted to do."
Coaching at the college level at Maryland or anywhere else may or may not end up part of the long-term plan for Tincher. Her fiancé works for the Golf Channel in Florida, making for a long-distance relationship. Not to mention that softball may eventually have company in pursuing her services -- if she wasn't so unfailingly pleasant, it would be easy to hold against her the annoyingly accomplished fact that in addition to a 0.78 career ERA, she also earned a 3.84 GPA in finance at Virginia Tech. Perhaps the postgraduate work she's doing at Maryland may lead to that desk job for which she wasn't quite ready, albeit one that might eventually come with a corner office and a nice view.
As she readily admits, there is no five-year or 10-year plan to work off of at the moment. But there is a pitching staff with the talent to take the Terrapins back to the NCAA tournament for the second season in a row. And it doesn't take long watching Tincher go about her business to see that's her focus at this particular moment.
"I just know she's a competitor," Watten said. "And I knew that she'd be able to take this pitching staff, if I gave her those responsibilities and just doing that, and that would be her baby. And that's what it has been."
It's a long way to come in three years, from the kid who stunned mighty Team USA and earned a legion of young fans in the process, like one from South Carolina who watched the replay of that game.
"I just thought she was the best pitcher I've ever seen up to that point," Czechner said. "After she shut down the USA team, I thought she'd be, like, my idol."
Instead, she's the one bringing cupcakes, driving the team van on road trips and admonishing the freshman when she's tardy warming up during a game. There's little doubt which iteration will have a more lasting impact on Czechner.
Selfishly, there is a certain sadness that Tincher's time in the spotlight came and went in what felt like the blink of an eye. But as she watches with mock maternal concern as her players try to sneak an extra cupcake after practice, it's easy to appreciate the sight of someone with all the time in the world for the rest of her life.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.