Jaywalking: A step up for Phillips

Monday, June 12, 2017

And just like that, Turners Falls has another WMass softball title under its belt.

What was remarkable about this year’s team is that it had so many new faces to duplicate Powertown glory of the recent past. Two graduates — Mackenzie Phillips and Jenna Putala — were considered the best pitcher and hitter in Franklin County the past few seasons. Their departures left the door open for newcomers to make a name for themselves. Enter pitcher Peyton Emery and championship game MVP Jordyn Fiske.

Phillips has not been forgotten though now pitching on the collegiate level. The pitcher who won three consecutive WMass titles at Turners Falls and led the team to the state finals in each of the three seasons — winning twice — recently finished off a successful first season at the collegiate level. The Worcester Polytechnic Institute freshman was named New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year for her performance in the circle. She was also named to the All-Conference second team after going 12-5 this season with a 2.32 earned run average. She picked up three saves to lead the conference and was second in the league with 112 strikeouts.

Phillips was one of the best high school pitchers in the state during her time at Turners Falls, but she admitted that making the jump to the collegiate level was not all that easy.

“It definitely took some adjustment,” she said. “It was such a big jump going from Turners to college. I didn’t do as well at the beginning of the season. At one point my coach asked, “Where’s the confident Turners Falls softball pitcher I recruited?’ We had a really good win against Worcester State (on April 11) and everything changed after that. I pitched six innings of that game, got taken out and put back in. It was my first really big college win.”

One adjustment Phillips had to deal with was that she was no longer the presumed starter, something that was never in question at Turners Falls. Although she wound up leading the team in innings pitched with 114⅔ over 28 appearances (the next highest total was 79⅔ ), she didn’t know until game time if she was starting. She said that her family would come to games and not know if they’d be watching her in the circle, but she had no problem with the shared role.

“It was a little different but I think the biggest thing was the mind-set change,” Phillips said. “I wanted to be a good teammate. It didn’t matter if I’m pitching or not, it’s about whatever is best for the team.”

Phillips said that another big difference between pitching at the collegiate level was the obvious difference in hitters faced. Even the bottom of the order on a college team would be some of the best hitters on a high school team, so there was that much more emphasis put on every single pitch. This fact affected the way she pitched in many ways.

“At Turners, I would still be really focused and work hard, but I didn’t have to be as serious about focusing on every single pitch,” she said. “In college we keep journals about whether we hit our spots. You have to be engaged with every single pitch you throw.”

Phillips said the emphasis on hitting spots was so great that in practice there would be times that if a pitcher missed a spot, everyone on the team had to sprint.

She also said that in order to be a good pitcher, you have to be prepared to throw some pitches out of the strike zone. Not being able to work the strike zone as consistently did result in more walks. She walked 29 hitters over the course of the season, which is likely more than she walked in three years at Turners Falls.

Phillips got stronger as the season wore on and got more comfortable as well. Her earned run average dropped to 1.66 against conference teams, and opponents’ batting average dropped by .16, down to .215 in conference games. She struck out 10 batters three times, once conference play began, including hitting the number in her season-finale, a 5-1 win against Wheaton in the NEWMAC Tournament.

“I think it’s all about confidence,” she said. “You can’t be intimidated by batters.”

WPI entered the season as the defending conference champions and she said the winning mentality was the same as it was at Turners Falls. Worcester Polytechnic wound up winning the NEWMAC regular-season title and got the top seed in the tournament, but the team fell short of winning the conference title, getting eliminated by Babson, 1-0, in an eight-inning game during the conference semifinals. Phillips did not pitch in that game. She said that because she had faced Babson three times during the regular season, her coach decided not to pitch her that day, and she said that teammate Caroline Medino pitched very well in the loss. When the Engineers learned they did not receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament, the season was over.

As for the Rookie of the Year nod, Phillips said it came as a huge surprise.

“It was definitely unexpected but it was a nice surprise,” she offered. “It was confirmation that I had worked hard during the year. There are some really great players in our league that I thought were going to get it.”

The biology major, who is also trying to minor in business, is living in Worcester this summer and doing an internship at the Seven Hills Foundation.

“It’s a non-profit that does all sorts of work with disabled people, adults and children,” she said.

Between her studies, work and working out, Phillip said she has not had a ton of time to pay attention to the Turners team, although she did attend a couple of games and does remain in touch with Mullins.

From WMass and state champion to Rookie of the Year at the collegiate level, who knows what is next for the pitcher? Her success also serves as a reminder that even though Turners Falls is a perennial champion, graduation certainly leaves some big shoes to fill.

If on Wednesday you happen to see Walter Kublinski — known to the Recorder sports gang as “Kubie” — wish him a happy birthday. One of the most loyal high school sports fans in Franklin County will be busy celebrating, I’m sure.

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.