Softball, Sports

The mental maturation of an ace

After a couple minutes of stretching, capped off by a few Michael Phelpsian arm swings, Boston University softball pitcher Cassidi Hardy bounces her way to the bullpen down BU field’s right-field line.

Sophomore catcher Christina Valdes soon joins the redshirt junior, and the two play catch, overhand, chatting as they toss. They share a laugh at the thought of ‘Ms. Hardy,’ an English education major, standing in front of a classroom of students one day. A smile never leaves Hardy’s freckled face as they loosen up.

After a few minutes of throwing, Hardy strides back to the mound, glancing back toward the field, away from Valdes. She bounces the ball between her glove and her throwing hand.

The grin is gone from her face, now replaced by a concentrated gaze.

She toes the rubber, rocks back on her left leg, and throws her body in motion toward a crouching Valdes. Her right arm swings over her head, and when it comes full circle, back at her right hip, the yellow sphere shoots out of her hand, and a 60-plus MPH fastball pops Valdes’ glove. The pitch misses Valdes’ desired target by at least two feet.

Valdes floats the ball back to Hardy, who catches the lob above her head. She freezes in that pose momentarily, shakes her head, and rounds back behind the mound. Her facial expression never changes. She again toes the rubber, again swings her arm, and again fires a speedball Valdes’ way.

Valdes could have caught the next four pitches with her eyes closed ‘-‘- Hardy hit her mitt, dead center, with each one.

Such is the improvement that has pushed Hardy to be one of America East’s most successful pitchers. Hardy’s 1.43 ERA, 171.0 innings pitched and 19 wins all rank second in the conference, and her three no-hitters are the most by a BU pitcher since Audrey West (’96) threw four perfect games in 1994.

The biggest revolution in Hardy’s game has been her mental maturation and toughness, pitching coach Jen Deering said. Deering, who helped pitch the University of California-Berkeley to a national championship in 2002, said she has noticed tremendous improvement in Hardy’s composure since the coach joined BU’s staff in 2007 ‘-‘- Hardy’s sophomore year.

‘That really comes from her,’ Deering said of the mental improvements. ‘I can’t make somebody mentally prepared or mentally strong, so that’s something she’s done on her own.’

Hardy said she has improved her ability to bounce back from a poor pitch or series of pitches. She said she still gets flustered when her control becomes shaky, but also said she’s learned to manage her emotions and refocus herself when the situation calls for it.

‘My freshman year, I probably would have wanted to be taken out,’ Hardy said. ‘This year, I definitely don’t want to because I feel I can get just a couple things straightened out between innings and I can come back strong.’

On April 19, in the rubber match of a pivotal three-game set with first-place Stony Brook University, Hardy had one of her worst outings of the year. The redshirt junior gave up six earned runs in six innings, and walked eight batters.

BU coach Shawn Rychcik said the biggest problem for Hardy was the walks, noting that when pitchers give hitters free bases, it increases the likelihood for big innings.

‘When she gets in trouble, it’s because she’s walking people,’ Rychcik said. ‘You can give up a solo shot, and you can withstand that defensively. But you walk two and give up a shot, now you’re down three.

‘She’s learned to understand the importance of just not giving up as many of the walks, and she’s had a pretty good year about that.’

Hardy said she wasn’t worried about the poor showing against Stony Brook.

‘You have bad games, but I feel the true test of an athlete is coming back for the next game,’ Hardy said after the SBU series.

Hardy lived up to her own standards in BU’s next contest, holding the University of Maine to five hits and two runs ‘-‘- both unearned ‘-‘- over seven innings in a 4-2 Terrier win. Hardy didn’t walk a single batter.

As the conference tournament approaches, Rychcik says he’ll depend heavily on Hardy to anchor the Terrier rotation. The America East Tournament is structured so teams only play one game per day, meaning Hardy can throw just about every tournament game for BU.

Hardy said she’s more concerned with taking things one game ‘-‘- more specifically, one hitter ‘-‘- at a time.

‘I try to be as stoic as possible,’ Hardy said of her demeanor on the mound. ‘I try not to show a lot of emotion, to go right at the batters, right at the glove.’

Of course, as soon as the game is over, Hardy is back to being her same, high-spirited self.

‘She’s a little bit of a kook,’ Valdes said, laughing, of Hardy’s off-field persona. ‘But in a really good way.’

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