On the brink of the big time, a star pitcher prepares for her last local season
04/05/2016 12:17PM ● Published by Richard Gaw
The March 21 softball game between Henderson and Avon Grove was postponed, but neither the imperfect conditions of Avon Grove's home field nor the swirling early spring winds stopped new head coach Mike Deluzio from scattering his team around for an impromptu practice.
Many of the faces that had become familiar to those who have followed Avon Grove softball in recent years were noticeably absent. Former coach Julie Hatfield is now operating Julie Hatfield Fitness, LLC. Gone, too, are the team's familiar players, like Courtney Gall, Ally Volko and Courtney Coppock, who helped the Red Devils finish 20-5 overall in the 2015 season.
As the cold breezes swept through the infield and Deluzio pitched from behind a protective fence in front of the pitcher's mound, the lone senior on the team stood at shortstop. She wore oversized sunglasses and a bright yellow jersey, on which a small green 'O' was imprinted. The letter, which appeared as if it were pinched on both top and bottom, was unmistakable, and to the young woman who wore it, the shirt represented both an end and a new beginning.
When she arrives at the University of Oregon next fall, Maggie Balint will finally say good-bye to the fields that dot the Ches-Mont League softball landscape like poorly- manicured afterthoughts. When she committed to Oregon last September, she signed on to play four seasons at the sparkling new Jane Sanders Stadium, before crowds that will average close to 2,000 a game. She signed on to play for head coach Mike White who, in his six years as coach, has compiled a 280-83-1 record, and led the Ducks to three Pac-12 titles. She signed on to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the Pacific Northwest, three thousand miles from Chester County, as one of the top recruits in the nation.
For good reason: Balint compiled a 51-18 record, a 0.60 ERA and 951 strikeouts in her first three years at Avon Grove, while holding her opponents to a .113 batting average. She was the two-time Pennsylvania State Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014 and 2015, and the Pennsylvania High School Softball Association Player of the Year in 2014.
"The thing that I love most about watching Maggie pitch is her competitive nature," Deluzio said. "People know that Maggie has great speed and spin, and can throw different pitches, but Maggie is not just a pitcher who throws. She a pitcher who thinks. She wants to beat you with her mind before she beats you with her arm. Her pitches are thought out and planned and then executed. Maggie has worked hard to get where she is. That's a tribute to what hard work and planning will get you."
As she embarks on what will be her final season at Avon Grove, however, Balint will get one last moment on the hill, to add to what has been a spectacular career. While she has personal goals still to achieve at Avon Grove -- to notch her 1,000th strikeout, and to be named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year for the third consecutive year -- there is no apology needed for any inclination she has to look ahead -- toward Oregon.
"I tell my parents all the time, 'I'm ready to go to college,'" Balint said. "I'm 18 now, I'm more mature, I'm ready to go. I have a lot of responsibilities, but I still feel as if I'm living the way I have been for the longest time."
Still, there's a season to play, and with it, the pressure to live up to not only past seasons, but prove to everyone who sees her that she is indeed worthy of playing at the Division 1 level.
"Now I feel like I need to play at the same caliber as those who play in the Pac-12, and I still have a season ahead of me," she said. "I don't think it gets easier. In fact, it gets harder. You're consistently comparing yourself to other players, and mentally it's draining, because you're practicing so much. That's what it has come down to."
For the past three seasons of Avon Grove softball, the eyes of the Ches-Mont may have been clearly on Balint, but the unquestionable leader of those teams was catcher Alyssa Herion, who served as Balint's battery mate and on-the-field soul partner. Inning after inning, game after game, it was a partnership built on the unspoken language of signals and intuition. At no time was their relationship so locked in than the afternoon of March 23 of last year, when Balint recorded a career high 24 strikeouts in an eight-inning, 2-0 victory over Henderson.
Herion is now a freshman at West Chester University, where she has already clubbed six home runs and driven in 20 runs for a team that is 25-3 so far this season. In contrast, a look around the diamond reveals a team chock full of freshman and sophomores, whose inexperience at the varsity level is expected to place more reliance on Balint's pitching in order to win this season.
"This team is completely different from last year," said Balint, who was named captain of the team. "For me to look at them and realize that there's no seniors gets me more excited to go. As a team, I'm looking for us to learn from each other.
"I know it's a younger squad, so I hope to give a lot of information to the younger athletes. On the mental and leadership side, it's going to be different, because a lot of my teammates haven't yet seen this level before. I think for the first few games and when we play out of conference, it's going to hit them that it's completely different than the level they're used to playing at travel ball."
Replacing Herion behind the plate will be freshman Olivia Kunitsky, who admitted that she is nervous to know that she will be the battery mate for one of the nation's most recruited high school softball players.
"I just want to catch Maggie really well, and not allow a lot of balls to go by," Kunitsky said. "Maggie shows a lot of leadership, so I kind of see it as a way to learn from her, so that as I get older, I can be a leader, too."
"We are a young team and balance is key of life," Deluzio said. "I believe the attention that Maggie gets is first well deserved, and second comes with the territory of being a pitcher. It is like being the quarterback of a team: all eyes are on you. As far as our young players are concerned, they understand Maggie gets attention but it does not diminish from their accomplishments. As a matter of fact it works as an advantage, and raises a standard to play at a higher level. Our players can match her intensity -- in drills, in desire and in effort.
"They know that we win or lose as a team and everyone has the responsibility to be prepared."
This season, Maggie Balint will walk out to the pitchers mounds of several fields in Chester County for the last time. There, she will train her focus completely on the catcher. She will block out everything else around her. She will go into her trademark wind up, and suddenly, the softball will appear from somewhere not entirely known or understood to the batters who will face her -- an optical illusion that vanishes into the catcher's glove in the blink of an eye. Fire. Pop. Good bye.
The physical formula of her movements that have given her the ability to pitch a softball are expected to remain the same when Maggie Balint arrives at the University of Oregon this fall.
Everything else around her, however, will most definitely change.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail email@example.com