Jaywalking: Turners Falls rides precocious Tyler to tourney

  • Turners Falls pitcher Jade Tyler (12) throws against Minnechaug in the top of the first inning on Tuesday, May 29, 2018 in Turners Falls. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Freshman Jade Tyler has been a pleasant surprise for the Turners Falls softball team. Recorder file photo/Paul Franz

  • Turners Falls pitcher Jade Tyler (12) throws against Greenfield in the bottom of the fourth inning, on Tuesday, April 24, 2018 in Greenfield. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Turners Falls freshman pitcher Jade Tyler (12) has stood tall for the Thunder this season. Recorder file photo/Dan Little

Monday, June 04, 2018

What makes the Turners Falls High School softball team so impressive is not just the longevity of the success the program has experienced, but also the manner in which it achieves that success.

Over the 39 years that Gary Mullins has been at the head of the softball program — which began in 1980 — the team has enjoyed success thanks to hundreds of dedicated players. Every once in a while, a player really leaves her mark on the program. In many cases that player is a pitcher or slugger, but always someone who puts in an extraordinary amount of work to hone her skills. For many, the hard work culminates in a couple of standout seasons — usually a junior and senior campaign — but for others, the success comes at an earlier age.

That’s the case for current freshman Jade Tyler. If you don’t know who she is by now, you have not been following Turners Falls this season. With Tyler’s varsity softball career still in its infancy, she has the ability to become one of the all-time best players to pull on the blue and white Thunder jersey. You think that might be a stretch? Well, think again.

Tyler is coming off a regular season in which she has stared at both the plate and in the circle. As a pitcher, she’s 15-2 with 73⅓ innings pitched, allowing just 15 earned runs on 32 hits and 21 walks. She has 114 strikeouts as she fires pitches in at a speed in the mid to upper 50s. Her numbers are just as eye-popping at the plate, where she led the team in batting with a .513 average this season, crushing eight home runs and driving in 29 runs, both team highs.

Tyler entered her freshman campaign as the likely backup pitcher to senior Peyton Emery, who was coming off a junior season that saw her lead Turners to both WMass and state titles. Tyler did see some time on varsity as an eighth-grader, splitting time between junior varsity and the parent club early in the year, but by the end, she was mostly a varsity reserve. She pitched some — mostly in mop-up duty, and got a few chances to hit the ball, but other than the knowledge of her having a great career as a youth player, nothing jumped out that suggested she was going to put together an MVP season one year later. In fact, after last season, Tyler said she just wanted to earn a full-time spot on varsity this season.

“It was a goal of mine to make varsity this year,” Tyler said. “I worked hard every day and made sure to put in a full effort.”

The effort has been there for quite some time. Tyler began her career playing T-ball and worked her way through the various area youth leagues. For the past six years, Tyler has also been working year around with someone who knows a thing or two about being an elite Powertown player — Kelly Tompkins Markol. Like Tyler, Tompkins Markol began playing varsity as a freshman, beginning her career in 1981. She helped the program to a 54-13 record as the team’s starting pitcher, and like Tyler, she went through a learning curve when it came to pitching for Mullins. In a story written about Mullins two years ago by former Recorder writer Mark Durant, Tompkins Markol said that learning to pitch for Mullins was not easy.

“He said I didn’t want to pitch because I was afraid and I couldn’t handle the pressure,” she said at the time. “He knew that would bother me and it definitely did. I took that as a challenge and worked every day during the summer just to prove him wrong.”

When Mullins speaks about Tyler, you get the feeling that he sees in her some of the same things he saw in Tompkins Markol as a youngster.

“Jade is always looking to make herself better,” he began. “We were worried about her throwing that four-walk inning, but she really has not had that. I think she has walked three in a game, max. If you walk people, I’m not going to use you. She has worked hard to make sure she gets the ball over the plate.”

Tompkins Markol now gives private pitching lessons and has been teaching Tyler for six years, working year-round.

“She’s great. She has helped me so much and I can’t thank her enough,” Tyler said. “She’s the reason I am where I am.”

Coming into the season, Emery was the projected starter for her senior season before an ankle injury derailed that. Emery began the season on the bench and thrust Tyler into the starting spot, and she responded by firing a no-hitter in the season-opening shutout win over Amherst. She followed that up with a shutout win over Easthampton, which went on to finish the season 16-4 overall.

“Going into the season, I honestly thought Peyton would be our leader and Jade would get some innings and grow,” Mullins said. “The injury to Peyton changed things tremendously. Jade got thrown into the fire and got the opportunity to do something she wanted to do.”

In order to make things easier on the young player, Mullins opted to hit for Tyler at the beginning of the season.

“I wanted to let her worry about just throwing the ball, but when I let her start hitting, she became a very valuable hitter,” Mullins said.

Even when Emery returned early in the season, Mullins stuck with the young pitcher, and the move paid off as the Thunder opened the season 8-1 overall, the lone loss coming by a 1-0 score against Greenfield High School. Both Tyler and Mullins also pointed to Emery’s support for helping Tyler through her freshman campaign.

“Peyton and me are good friends,” Tyler said. “It’s nice to look up to someone older than me who supports me and plays the same position.”

Mullins agreed.

“From what I’ve seen, Peyton has been very supportive,” the coach said. “They have a nice little competitive relationship, but whenever I see the two of them, they are rooting for each other.”

Tyler said that the biggest surprise to her this season has not been her pitching, but rather her offense, where she said she didn’t expect to be as good as she currently is in hitting cleanup and leading the team. Her eight home runs are more impressive when you consider that former Turners Falls star Jenna Putala holds the single-season team record with 10, which she hit in her junior year. Putala added eight more her senior season. Mullins figures that if Tyler remains healthy — something that Putala unfortunately struggled with throughout her career — she will leave the program as its all-time leader in home runs.

“She wants to be a good player and she had a terrific freshman year — by far the best freshman year of anybody I’ve ever had,” Mullins said. “Way back when I had some terrific hitters like Kelly Tompkins and Kelly Brown, we didn’t have a fence, but as far as recent times, Jenna had 10 home runs her junior year and eight her senior, and she set the standard.”

Tyler now leads the Thunder into the postseason, where they are the favorites to add another WMass title to the long list of titles won by the area’s premier program. If they do, it will be with the help of its precocious pitcher, who is adding her name to another list, that of being one of the best to come through the Powertown.

“I think Jade is going to be a wonderful player,” Mullins concluded. “She had incredible numbers this season. And her parents deserve a pat on the back, because they are very supportive. But she has to be the worker, and I think we have seen some great stuff from her.”

With plenty more to come.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.