FOREST GROVE, Ore. -- Head coach Tim Hill felt that his team's chances were as cold as the bitter winter wind blowing outside when he met with his three seniors on that first January day back from Christmas Break.
The conversation centered around the Pacific pitching staff, which had been decimated by injuries after fall practices. Marissa Reichard, who had developed into the team's ace the year before as a freshman, was out due to labrum surgery. A planned transition from the field for sophomore Jessie Moore was also rendered moot with a recurring shoulder problem. A third pitcher left the program to deal with personal issues.
The weight of the pitching duties, 40 games worth, would fall on the shoulders of senior Sara Aasness, a Division I transfer who started 12 games for the Boxers as a junior, and Allie Sims, a talented, but unproven freshman.Hill spoke frankly with the three seniors: Aasness, First Team All-Northwest Conference outfielder Becca Moen and Maddie Collura, a reserve outfielder who had spent more time in the dugout than she had on the field.
The coach spoke of the adversity the team would likely face and was honest about the Boxers' chances for success. It was going to be a tough year, he said, and they would need to hang in there as the season dragged on with the inevitable tiring of the two pitcher's arms.
Aasness and Moen, the experienced college players, offered analysis and ideas. Collura offered nothing until the end, when she told the trio that she might be able to help.
Hill was confused and asked Collura how she thought she could help the program.
"Well, I think I can help with the pitching."
Hill posed the logical follow-up question, and the answer confused him more. "I went home and hired a pitching coach. I've been working with a pitching coach for three weeks."
Collura had pitched some in high school, but had never thrown in two years in a Pacific uniform. She hadn't wanted to pitch in college and had even undergone labrum surgery to repair damage from the wear and tear two years ago.
"I was confused. I didn't know what she was really telling me," Hill said. "So I asked, 'Maddie, why would you do that?'"
"Because that's what the team needs."
In the end, that decision proved critical in propelling Pacific to one of their best seasons in Hill's 12-year tenure.
Accepting her role -- and learning a new one
Being relegated to life as a reserve outfielder, a pinch-hitter, a pinch-runner, can easily wear on anyone who comes to college expecting to have a chance to play. Despite the dreams of being a regular player on a competitive team, Collura accepted her role without complaint.
It didn't matter to Maddie. Softball was in her blood.
"It's been part of my life since, well, I can't ever remember," Collura said. "Especially this team. I've never been part of a team like this group of girls that's so well knit. We have each other's backs and care about each other and each other's successes. The last two years for me on this team have just been amazing. And that's why I wanted to do this."
The idea to pitch came after another senior meeting at the end of fall semester finals in December. Collura called her father, himself a softball coach, and ran the plan by him. He was completely taken by surprise, but helped Maddie line up the services of a Dennis Phillips, a longtime pitching coach in her hometown of Phoenix, Ariz.. In a few days, Collura was started a three-week crash course in college softball pitching.
But pitching is a skill that is not gained in days, weeks or even months. College pitchers are built in years and Collura didn't plan to be an overnight success.
At least that's the way she explained it to Hill. "I can be that person who comes in when we need to save a pitcher for the next game," Collura said in that senior meeting. "Maybe we are way behind, I can come in and just finish the game. Regardless of how hard I get hit or how many runs I gave up, I could stay in there and save a pitcher for the next game."
The plan left Hill with few words. "She was sacrificing her chance to play in the outfield. She was sacrificing her pride because that's what the team needed. In all of my years of coaching, I have never seen someone be so selfless and put the team that far ahead of herself."
The three weeks in Phoenix were intense. The wind-up motion of a fastpitch softball pitcher is violent, stressing the shoulder and back. Within a couple of days, Collura couldn't even lift her arm after a workout. Long dormant muscles were suddenly awakened, voicing their displeasure.
Collura and her coach kept things basic, working up a fastball and curve to give her two solid pitches to work with. Again, the plan was not to become an all-conference performer, but to do the job and keep Aasness and Sims fresh. By the end of the break, Collura and her coach thought she was ready.
Collura hadn't revealed her plans to her teammates either. She wanted to see what she could do before telling anyone. Her new role was announced to the team at their first spring practice, a midnight session held in the Stoller Center fieldhouse. Some of the players thought the late hour was making them hear things.
"They were shocked," Collura said of her teammates. "First of all, they didn't even know that I had been a pitcher. Becca [Moen] knew because she was around during my freshman year, but everyone else had no idea because I didn't tell anybody."
So it was that Collura, the reserve outfielder, pinch-hitter and pinch-runner, was now a pitcher for Pacific. But the role was clear to both her and Hill. She was no starter, she was the mop-up crew. And it would not be easy.
The experiment begins -- roughly
Hill eased Collura into the role when the season commenced. Hosting Northwest (Wash.), the Pacific bats had turned the Feb. 1 season-opener into a laugher. A two-run double by Rachel Roberts and a two-run homer by Kylee Oshiro keyed an eight-run third inning that put the Boxers ahead 11-0.
In the beginning of the fifth inning, Hill decided to give the starter Aasness one more out and then bring Collura in for her first appearance in the circle.
Nervous and scared was an understatement. Nalani Antonio, the catcher warming Collura up in the bullpen, asked if she was ready. She could only say, "I guess." She knew the call would come, but she didn't expect it to come now, in a game with an 11-run lead.
Aasness walked pinch-hitter Hanna Chaffin and Katelyn Reidinger laid down a sacrifice bunt to move Chaffin to second. Hill came out of the dugout and called for Collura.
"I was shaking so much," Collura remembered of walking from the bullpen to the circle. "I have never been so scared or so full of adrenaline. I got a strikeout and I didn't know what to do. It was so awkward, I just didn't know what to do."
A strikeout and a flyout and the game had ended. Colllura had successfully made it through her first pitching appearance, but reality set in two weeks later in the Boxers' first trip to Texas. After winning a close one against Austin and ousting Howard Payne on the eight-run rule (a game in which Collura pitched two scoreless innings), the Boxers were challenged by a decent Southwestern team.
A big six-run first inning appeared to have set the Boxers up for their fifth win, but the Pirates started knocking Aasness around in the third. After Pacific scored one in the fourth, the Pirates dealt the knockout punch in the home half. A string of singles and wild pitches showed Aasness was gassed. Hill needed her the next day, so Collura came in to do the job she volunteered to do.
He didn't sugar coat the situation. "We were losing and the team had kind of lost its momentum," Collura said. "I couldn't remember the last time I was in a situation like this. He said, 'I think this going to be tough on you and think you need it.'"
She inherited a bases loaded mess and paid with her ERA. Three bases loaded walks and a fielder's choice later, the Pirates had tied the game. Southwestern scored one more in the fifth and five more in the sixth and handed Pacific a 15-10 loss. In her 2.2 innings, Collura allowed six hits on five hits and walked six. Her earned run average ballooned from 0.00 to 7.88.
"We got our brains beat out," Hill said, "and she sat in the circle and gave up a ton of runs, but she saved our pitcher for the next game and we won the next game."
She got roughed up, but she did it for the team. "I was OK," Collura said. "I just appreciated Tim giving me the opportunity to be able to help and feeling the support from him."
Things get better and better
Collura performed mop-up duties much the same way throughout the first half of the Northwest Conference schedule. An inning with a big lead here, an inning with the result long lost there. Against Willamette on Mar. 1, Collura was hammered for five runs and gave up six walks mopping up in a 12-3 loss. She was performing her role well, doing the job effectively.
But all players progress and grow through the course of the season. On the best teams, even the role players find ways to grow, to contribute and make the team better.
Hill had noticed improvement in Collura during those mop-up roles and scrimmages, but nothing prepared him for what happened at home on Mar. 14 against defending NWC champion and perennial Division III power Linfield.
The Boxers had played the Wildcats close in two games three days earlier in McMinnville, contests the Boxers lost 3-2 and 5-4. On this Saturday, the Linfield batters were hammering the shell-shocked Sims left and right. After just 2.2 innings, the freshman was out and Collura was into the game.
Ashley Garcia welcomed Collura with a single, but Alex Andreotti struck out to mercifully end the third. The Wildcats mustered just one walk in the fourth and two in the fifth. A hit and a walk put a Linfield runner on third base in the sixth, but Collura got McKenna Spieth to look at strike three to end the threat. The Wildcats went down in order in the seventh.
Collura hadn't sacrificed herself. Against one of the top offenses in the nation, Collura allowed just two hits and five walks, struck out four and put nothing but zeroes on the board. And while she allowed four runs in 1.1 innings to Linfield the next day, it was obvious she was becoming more than what anyone thought she would be.
Yet despite her success, Collura didn't get in the circle again for two weeks. Aasness and Sims put together a string of solid games against Willamette, Puget Sound and Lewis & Clark. Despite her self-appointed role, Collura was not happy. She had improved. She had progressed her curveball and fastball and evolved into a four-pitch repertoire: curveball, change-up, screwball and dropball. She wanted more.
"After the Linfield game, she was upset because she wasn't pitching," Hill said. "She had come a long way from someone who was there just to eat up innings. She felt like she should be in the rotation."
A series of rainouts and rescheduled games gave Collura the chance to prove she belonged. She got the call to start the Apr. 6 opener of a home doubleheader with Pacific Lutheran. The Lutes were on a roll, having won five consecutive and the weekend before handed Linfield only its second loss of the season.
Collura brought the Lutes' roll to a screeching halt, scattering six hits and a walk in six innings, the only run scoring in a three-hit sixth inning. After giving up a double to lead off the seventh, Collura gave way to Aasness, who closed the door on a 3-1 victory and gave Collura her first collegiate win.
Four days later, she proved the performance was no fluke. Collura went the distance against Puget Sound on Apr. 10, the second game of a critical seven-game run that ended the regular season, allowing one unearned run on six hits. After being roughed up for four runs in the Apr. 12 doubleheader against George Fox (which Pacific came back to win 7-6), Collura quieted the Bruins' bats on their home field the next day. In three innings of relief, she allowed just one hit and two walks, and Hill realized just how far this senior had truly come.
"She struck the first batter out," Hill said. "And I thought to myself, 'If that's all she had done this year was struck that one batter out, based on what she did, that would have been phenomenal.' She is pitching with confidence and has gained the confidence of everyone else."
Maddie Collura was no longer a reliever, someone there solely to save her teammates. She was a pitcher, and the Boxers' staff had grown from two to three.
Pacific's final home doubleheader was packed with emotion. Not only were the games with George Fox critical, but it was a day of many lasts. The three seniors, Aasness, Moen and Collura, were playing their final home games at Sherman/Larkins Stadium. And Tim Hill was coaching his last games there, having announced his retirement three weeks earlier.
Collura had tears in her eyes while Hill told the crowd of her story, of her willingness to sacrifice her senior season for the sake of the team. As it worked out, Collura would be the last senior that Hill would wax philosophically about. It felt right.
The contributions had made a difference. They helped Pacific finish with a 24-10 record and second place in the NWC, two things that no one in that January senior meeting would have thought possible.
Collura thinks the world of Hill and the faith he put in her. "The reason why we are here and the reason why our team is the way we are is because of Tim," she said. "Without him, I don't think we would be as close as we are. He chose a group of girls that have a certain personality and in a certain way they live their lives and puts them together in a strong team."
Hill, who has coached all-conference players, national statistical leaders, All-Americans and national champions, needed fewer words to sum up his feelings on Collura. In his four decades of coaching, he has never coached anyone like her.
"She is my softball hero."