Eastern Connecticut State senior pitcher Molly Rathbun realized early on how important it was for her to stay close to home.

This week, Rathbun and the Warriors will be hosting the program's first NCAA Regional Tournament since 1994 at their brand new facility -- the Mansfield Outdoor Athletic Complex.

Rathbun was raised on a dairy farm in Hebron, Ct., a short drive from ECSU's Willimantic campus. Her father Gordon tended to the cows, while mother Denise ran a hair salon in the family's basement. Rathbun and her sisters enjoyed the perks of living on a 35-acre farm.

"We were always outside playing … we weren't in the house playing video games," Rathbun said. "We were playing with the animals or building forts in the barn."

But the family farm was not meeting all the costs of three growing children, so the Rathbuns sold the cows while Molly was in high school, and her parents found better paying jobs elsewhere.

"My dad and mom gave away their dreams and got other jobs," Rathbun said. "That was really tough for all of us. I realized that they put what they loved doing aside because they wanted to provide for us a little better. I was on AAU softball teams and those cost a lot of money. They had to give up a lot for me to play softball, but that got me to where I am now. It made a huge impact on me."

Initially, Rathbun had no plans of attending school so close to home, but her mother said to take the tour anyway. She met with head coach Diana Pepin and immediately liked her straightforward approach. Pepin had watched Rathbun pitch several times in summer leagues, and liked what she saw.

"I think the reason we got Molly was because she was under the radar because there two pitchers in front of her," Pepin said. "They pitched a lot, and she was the team's third pitcher and I thought the most talented. But a lot of coaches didn't see her."

Rathbun also felt very comfortable on the small campus with more intimate classrooms. She had visited a few Division I schools and was intimidated by the large lecture halls. Rathbun also wanted a chance to play volleyball - which she did as a college freshman - and knew that would be tough at a Division I school.

It was the right choice for Rathbun. She has starred for the Warriors, becoming a three-time All-American and leading the program to back-to-back berths in the Division III national tournament in 2010 and 2011. ECSU finished third and fifth nationally, respectively, in those seasons.

"Molly is a quality kid," Pepin said. "She will do anything for her teammates. She's very humble, and sometimes too humble, I think, for all the accolades she's received. She would trade any of those accolades for a national championship. That's her main goal, and the team's, and Molly has really gone after it with a vengeance."

After losing just one player from last year's squad, Rathbun and the Warriors have compiled an incredible 40-1 record and are ranked No. 2 nationally.

"We knew this year that we had a good shot of doing something special," Pepin said. "The veterans that have been to the national tournament really took it upon themselves to make sure everyone was motivated to leave no stone unturned."

She is very humble, and sometimes too humble, I think, for all the accolades she's received. She would trade any of those accolades for a national championship.
-- ECSU head coach Diana Pepin

Currently, Rathbun leads Division III with a 0.40 ERA and 14 shutouts, and ranks fourth in the nation with 11.4 strikeouts per seven innings. Not to mention, she is batting .459 with 42 RBI, 10 doubles and four home runs.

"She is overpowering," Pepin said. "She throws a screw ball, a rise ball, a curve and a change-up. She keeps the batters honest and overpowers them with her velocity and movement.

"She worked out constantly in the offseason. She has worked on her pitches to make sure they are moving. She has great speed, and good movement … she's a smart pitcher, who hits her spots and fools batters."

The Warriors' lone loss came at the hands of Tufts on the opening day of their season on March 19. They have strung together 39 wins since the 4-2 setback, and in the rematch against Tufts on April 15, Rathbun tossed a perfect game - the first ECSU player to accomplish the feat in 27 years.

"We did want to prove ourselves going into that game, but it doesn't matter who the opponent is, we're always playing Eastern softball," Rathbun said. "The loss was in the back of my mind, but I knew I just needed to do my thing. They are such a good hitting team, I was surprised it happened. I would have never thought that would have happened."

Not only has her softball career flourished at Eastern Connecticut, but personally it has been a blessing to be close to home when her family needed her most. Two years ago, Rathbun's older sister was in a serious car accident and almost lost her arm. She and her mother nursed her back to health, which also served as an "aha" moment for Rathbun's future career.

"After helping my sister recover and taking care of her, I realized how much I enjoyed helping people," Rathbun said. "That lit a fire for me, and I decided I wanted to get into the medical field. Eastern doesn't have a nursing program, but there was no way I was going to leave. I'll graduate in December and apply to the UConn accelerated nursing program."

Rathbun will get one more chance to play at home in the NCAA Regional. It was something she never thought she would happen after the school knocked down the team's old facility following her freshman year. The program spent two years practicing at a local middle school, and borrowing time at other facilities before ECSU opened a new athletic complex this spring.

"To have that this year was something so special," Rathbun said. "And, plus, to be able to host regionals now, it was great to bring that back to the school."

"Now we have the full package and a great facility," Pepin said. "The playing surface has been phenomenal and I think the kids are very excited to play at home."

Top-seeded Eastern Connecticut will open NCAA Regional play on May 10 against No. 8 Lesley at 11 a.m. ET. Tufts is seeded second in the regional.