Plourde and Prezioso Represent Atlantic 10, Exemplify Mid-Major Potential at Next Level

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts).

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle. (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts)

Former Atlantic 10 softball standouts Sara Plourde and Sarah Prezioso find themselves in the minority of players in the professional and international ranks. Following their stellar careers at UMass and Temple, respectively, it is not their skills that set them apart from the world’s best softball players, but rather the pedigree from which they come. Within the professional and international softball scene, where names like Cat Osterman, Keilani Ricketts, and Natasha Watley headline the competition, it is quite uncommon to find players from mid-major conferences in the mix.

Plourde, a 2012 graduate of UMass, is currently wrapping up her second consecutive summer as a member of Team Canada’s pitching staff. The recently-hired UTEP pitching coach believes that many players in mid-major conferences are unfairly categorized as less-skilled than those at big name schools.

“I full-heartedly believe there are many athletes who are overlooked simply because they don’t play in top conferences,” the three-time All-American hurler said. “There are so many talented players in the mid-major conferences, and only a select group has been given the opportunity to play at the next level.”

Plourde was drafted in 2012 by the Carolina Diamonds (now the Pennsylvania Rebellion) of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league, following one of the best careers in Atlantic 10 softball history. She led the country in strikeouts each season from 2010-2012 and finished her collegiate career ranked eighth in total strikeouts in NCAA Division I softball history.

Along with Plourde, other recent Atlantic 10 graduates to play post-collegiate professional softball include Brandice Balschmiter (UMass, 2009), Jen Mineau (Fordham, 2012), Christina Sykora (Temple, 2012), Cyndil Matthew (UMass, 2013), and Sarah Prezioso (Temple, 2014).

Prezioso recently completed her rookie season in the NPF with the Pennsylvania Rebellion. The 2014 Temple graduate was a three-time All-Atlantic 10 honoree at shortstop, before playing her senior season in the AAC after Temple switched conferences.

Like Plourde, Prezioso also believes players from the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences don’t receive the respect they rightfully deserve from the softball community.

“Since the A10 isn’t considered a powerhouse conference, a lot of players, like me, have been overlooked,” said the first player in Temple softball history to collect 200 hits. “People think that [we] are only doing well because of the competition we play against.”

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts in July (Courtesy of Katie Roupe).

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts of the USSSA Pride in July. (Courtesy of Katie Roupe)

Prezioso thinks it is the exposure that players from “big time” schools get, and not their talent, which separates them from mid-major players.

“In the NPF there are all the big name players who everyone knows about because they are featured on television,” Prezioso said. “It is such a shame when you play the same level of Division 1 softball and can compete at a high-level in the NPF, but are thought of as a lesser player because of the school you went to and the conference you played in.”

At the center of the issue, Prezioso believes, is the difference in funding between major and mid-major programs.

“Because of how financially well-off some schools are, they have the money to give [scholarships] to high-caliber players and put into their facilities, uniforms, travel, and stadiums,” the former All-Region shortstop said. “Recruits look for these types of things when choosing their schools.”

Plourde firmly believes it will take more than just money and television exposure for the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences to take the next step and gain similar respect as the PAC-12, SEC, and Big 12.

“Winning against the teams with higher rankings and harder schedules is what mid-major conferences need in order to gain the same respect as the powerhouse conferences,” Plourde said. “To be one of the best, you have to play and beat some of the best.”

The 2012 Atlantic 10 Pitcher and Player of the Year speaks from personal experience, after leading UMass to three Top-40 finishes in her four collegiate seasons. Plourde recalls her UMass team from 2009 as an example of mid-major success amongst the nation’s best. That season, UMass took the eventual National Champion Washington Huskies to a third and decisive 15-inning game in the NCAA Regionals, and finished ranked 24th in the country.

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013 (Courtesy of Team Canada).

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013. (Courtesy of Team Canada)

“That year, we had fantastic leadership, passion, and chemistry, and although we didn’t win [Regionals], we still sent a message that people have not forgotten today,” Plourde stated. “With the right ingredients, a mid-major school can definitely send a large shock of fear or intimidation across the country.”

A prime example of consistent mid-major softball success is the Louisiana-Lafayette program. The Rajin Cajuns, out of the Sun Belt Conference, have played in six Women’s College World Series since 1993 and are perennially ranked in the Top 25. ULL’s feats demonstrate what a mid-major program can accomplish with a successful formula and winning mentality.

Plourde believes a winning mentality develops from heated rivalries and in-conference battles that prepare players for competition against big name schools. She credits her experiences at UMass against Atlantic 10-rival Fordham as the preparation that was necessary to compete against top-flight teams and players, both in college and professionally.

“People often say about big moments or pressure situations, ‘act like you’ve been there before,’ and because of our A10 rivalry with Fordham, I can actually live that feeling of performing well in high-pressure situations,” Plourde recalled.

Despite being underestimated for having played at mid-major schools, both Plourde and Prezioso have helped legitimize Atlantic 10 softball, while proving their worth on the professional and international stages. Both women have similarly used the underdog role to help propel their professional careers and pave the way for future post-graduate softball success of other mid-major players.

“It takes a lot of work, but having the drive and passion to work hard to play amongst the best in the world, especially after initially being over-looked, can be really rewarding,” Plourde attested. “Is one game going to make mid-major teams and players emerge as dark-horses? No, probably not. But why not keep building on it? It is definitely not out of the question.”

Lessons Learned in Softball Propel Broadcasting Success

Smith and Mendoza in the booth during the Women's College World Series. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Michele Smith and Jessica Mendoza. (Courtesy of ESPN)

In a fast-moving sport like college softball, where nuances such as the grip of a pitch, path of a swing, or angle taken to a batted ball can determine a game’s outcome, it is easy for inexperienced eyes to miss the finer details of the game.

For college softball broadcasters Michele Smith, Jessica Mendoza, Amanda Scarborough, and Kayla Braud, picking up on the nuances of the game is second nature. Their high-level softball experiences, at the Division I collegiate level, internationally, and professionally, have been invaluable assets in their careers behind the mic. These former softball stars turned broadcasters serve as the storytellers and sense-makers of many of the ESPN college softball broadcasts during the spring season.

Despite playing in different decades, on dissimilar teams, at varied positions, this quartet of All-Americans is connected by their shared ability to bridge the gaps of understanding for softball fans of all ages and experiences. Their unparalleled first-hand experiences in the sport allow viewers the opportunity to see the game beyond the bat and ball.

In making the transition from the playing field to the broadcasting booth, these women have similarly incorporated lessons learned on the softball diamond into their professional careers on television.

“I think the processes involved in being a successful broadcaster are similar to being an athlete,” said two-time Olympic gold medal winning pitcher Michele Smith. “You’re constantly learning and constantly critiquing yourself.”

Smith, ESPN’s lead color commentator for women’s college softball and one of the most familiar faces in the sport, recently won the 2014 Bill Teegins Excellence in Sportscasting Award. She says the secret to her successful transition from the playing field to the booth has been her ability to approach broadcasts much like she did the pitching circle: with precision and attention to detail.

“When I was playing, I would go back and look at tape of myself to see how my pitches worked and what batters’ approaches against me were,” the two-time All-American at Oklahoma State said. “It’s the same thing with broadcasting, I will go back and listen to my tapes and think of different ways to say the same things to avoid sounding redundant and give my broadcasts as much color as possible.”

Amanda Scarborough during an ESPN broadcast. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Amanda Scarborough. (Courtesy of ESPN)

For Smith, who became the first female analyst to call a Major League Baseball game in 2012, the transition to the booth involved a great amount of learning on the fly and studying of other analysts.

“I had no formal education in media or communications, so when I first started broadcasting, it was like learning a whole new language,” Smith recalled. “There is so much that goes into broadcasting. Whether it’s knowing the terminology, realizing how broadcasts work, or understanding all of the jobs involved in a single broadcast.”

Much like being a student of the game of softball, Smith has been a student of the craft of broadcasting since her on-camera career began in 1994.

“For me, it’s been a lot of studying, asking for advice from people in the industry, listening to other analysts, talking to them about what they think is relevant, and trying to tweak all of these things to add them into my own game plan,” the eight-time Japan Professional League MVP stated candidly.

Like Smith, Jessica Mendoza, a four-time All-American at Stanford, uses similar tactics in her broadcasting career as she did on the softball diamond.

“I find the pressure you feel in big moments as a player is very similar to the pressure and adrenaline when you are live on air in front of millions when that red light goes on,” the ESPN analyst and reporter revealed. “I crave and love that challenge and knowing it is all or nothing, similar to that one pitch or opportunity you get as a player.”

Mendoza’s ability to perform gracefully under pressure, much like she did while establishing herself as one of the best hitters in the history of the sport, has allowed her to expand her broadcasting career beyond the white lines of the softball field. The Olympic gold and silver medalist is also a college football sideline reporter for ESPN, as well as the first woman to ever co-host Baseball Tonight.

Like the aforementioned Smith and Mendoza, Amanda Scarborough, a two-time All-American pitcher at Texas A&M, has carried over skills into her broadcasting career that were vital to her on-field success.

“In college,  I understood that the harder I worked outside of game day and in my own time, the better results I was going to get and the more confident I would be on the field,” the current ESPN and Longhorn Network softball analyst said. “So with broadcasting, I am big on preparation before going into a game I am commentating. Preparation is where my confidence comes from.”

Kayla Braud. (Courtesy of ESPN)

Kayla Braud. (Courtesy of ESPN)

The preparation that Scarborough still practices today, as well as the confidence she exudes in her broadcasts, have allowed her to expand her broadcasting repertoire, much like Mendoza. After four seasons of broadcasting college softball, Scarborough began covering men’s and women’s college basketball, as well as college football, as a sideline reporter for the Longhorn Network in 2013.

In learning from those who came before her, broadcasting newcomer Kayla Braud, a three-time All-American and 2012 National Champion at Alabama, similarly draws from her college softball experiences to propel her young broadcasting career.

“I constantly look back on my softball experiences at Alabama, especially overcoming adversity and dealing with failure,” the 2013 Senior CLASS Award winner said. “I know that when things aren’t going as smoothly as planned when I’m calling a game, I can adjust. I don’t get too rattled in pressure situations on the job because softball has already put me in tons of pressure situations that I’ve been able to handle just fine.”

While the transition from the diamond to the booth comes with its fair share of adjustments, it is a struggle that parallels what nearly all softball players encounter at some point during their playing days.

“The transition to broadcasting is like learning a new position and a new way of thinking about the game you already know so well,” Scarborough said. “Just like in the game of softball, the older you get and the more reps you receive, the more the game slows down and you become comfortable with your ability to express your thoughts in order to perform your best.”

For Smith, Mendoza, Scarborough, and Braud, the ability to make adjustments and perform at their best has created quite the recipe for success, both on the field and in the booth.