April 7, 2006

After stellar careers, batterymates leave program

The life of a student-athlete is a demanding one. But time after time, a love for the game leads the men and women in maroon and grey to make the sacrifices necessary to take the field. They grab every opportunity to play because they know that the time will inevitably come when those opportunities will stop materializing.

That moment came a year earlier than expected for three-time All-American pitcher Hannah Roberts and her batterymate catcher Randi Leppla, both fourth-years. After three seasons in the varsity threads, the pair decided to say goodbye to the sport. Breaking the news to head coach Ruth Kmak and teammates at the beginning of the school year, the two cited increasing communication trouble with management as taking the fun out of the game.

It was a tough call for two players who had taken their place on the diamond for many years. Leppla got her first taste of the game with tee-ball, and Roberts stepped onto the mound with a fast-pitch delivery for the first time at age 10.

“My decision not to play was one made after endless hours of difficult deliberation,” Roberts said. “Furthermore, I am happy and thankful for the opportunity to play collegiate softball aslong as I did.”

Roberts’s accomplishments and contributions to the Maroons are not likely to be soon forgotten. A long-time movement pitcher who almost entirely gave up her fastball when a herniated disc in high school made bringing heat uncomfortable, she dominated Division III hitters with an arsenal of breaking pitches. Roberts burst into prominence as a first year with a 14–3 record and a 0.51 ERA, establishing herself as the squad’s ace and an All-American-caliber pitcher. She proved to be more than a flash in the pan, turning in gem after gem to lead Chicago to three straight winning seasons on a club without the offensive prowess to give her many big leads to work with. The program’s record book reflects her impact. She ranks first in three career categories with a 0.39 ERA, 49 wins (tie), 24 shutouts along with the five single-season marks set in 2004: a 0.25 ERA, 19 wins, 11 shutouts, 166.2 innings pitched, and 226 strikeouts.

Yet her tremendous success on the mound wasn’t enough to overcome her growing discontent with the team’s management. Accustomed to collaborative relationships with coaches, Roberts felt discouraged by three years of strained communication with Kmak. Increasingly stressed by the team’s failure to act on her constructive criticism and displeased with her decrease in playing time over the years, the All-American converted the last out of the 4–1 victory in the 2005 season finale knowing it was her last outing as a Maroon.

“I came to the conclusion that regardless of how much I love to play softball, I would be happier pursuing other interests that didn’t include such immense amounts of frustration and disappointment,” Roberts said. “This was largely founded in a history of poor communication and interactions between myself and the coaching staff and the athletic department.”

Sharing her classmate’s dissatisfaction with the interaction between players and coaches, Leppla had her first fleeting thoughts of leaving the squad during the 2004 campaign. A converted shortstop, she started working behind the plate as a junior in high school to fill the spot left by the graduating starter. As the backstop for Chicago, she proved to be a master of her craft, recording .994, .982, and .995 fielding percentages over three seasons. Leppla quickly settled in as Roberts’ batterymate when the two immediately clicked on the field during their first spring break trip to Fort Myers.

“The decision not to play was a very difficult one for both of us,” Leppla said. “I miss seeing my teammates every day and playing the sport I love, but it was the best decision for me personally.”

Kmak declined to comment on the pair’s respective choices not to return to the team.

Having lost an average of 55.4 innings per season on the mound and 32.3 games played from behind the mask, softball was forced to make some major shifts to adjust to life without the twosome. Kmak’s biggest change to the Maroons’ tactics for this year has been her abandonment of a set rotation. Rather than try to replace Roberts, who worked 429.2 innings with 52 starts, Kmak plans to send pitchers to the hill with the primary intention of keeping opposing hitters off balance. In practice, third-year righty Petra Wade has carried the bulk of the workload with 67.2 innings, recording a 10–1 mark with a 1.20 ERA and a 0.164 opponents’ batting average.

From the offensive end, Roberts’ absence from the field has required Chicago hitters to step up their performances at the plate. Accepting the challenge, the squad has scored 57 runs with a .292 team batting average and a 0.388 slugging percentage in 14 games this season, against last season’s .259 average, 0.319 slugging and 3.6 runs per game.

“Our execution is at a level it has never been at,” Kmak said. “We went through the order the other day and said, ‘Look, there’s nobody that’s an easy out.’”

With the hitting in place and a solid defense to back the pitching, Roberts and Leppla will have plenty to cheer about as they root for their former teammates.

“Now, supporting the team and building an even better program is the most important thing in my mind,” Roberts said.

After endless hours of practices and games, tearing away from a sport and throwing in the towel is a difficult move, one that’s made even tougher because how and when it happens cannot always be planned.