Mansfield - It is Arielle Cooper, Mystic's own, who has created an interesting dilemma for Division III softball pitchers around the Northeast this spring.
To pitch (to Cooper) or not to pitch?
Hitting .625 for Eastern Connecticut State University heading into Saturday's doubleheader with Southern Maine, Cooper led off the first game with a towering home run to left-center field, her ninth of the season.
After that she got a little bit of a Babe Ruth treatment from Southern Maine, walking six times (and scoring on three of them) in Eastern's 9-3, 10-0 sweep. The second game, in which Cooper was walked in all four plate appearances, ended after five-innings due to the eight-run rule.
"She's on a mission," Eastern coach Diana Pepin said of Cooper, after the Warriors won their 10th straight game. "She wants to make a statement. She wants good things for her team. She wants the team to go far."
"I'll just bat 1.000 for walks," said Cooper, a Fitch graduate. "Whatever helps get us on top."
This Eastern team has a different look than a year ago, when the Warriors were 44-3 with a berth in the NCAA tournament regional final. For one thing, All-America pitcher Molly Rathbun, who was 33-3, graduated and is now on the coaching staff. Pepin has been forced to mix and match her five pitchers to get the team to 13-5.
Also, led by Cooper, the Warriors have an Eastern Connecticut Conference flair, aided by the addition of freshmen Alyssa Hancock of Waterford, The Day's Player of the Year in 2012, and Alicia White of Bacon Academy. Hancock was hitting .354 headed into Saturday and White .447.
Eastern's starting lineup in Game 2 Saturday featured six locals, starting with Cooper in the leadoff slot and playing third base. Hancock played short and batted second. White was third as the designated player. Waterford grad Mattie Brett, in her second season as the center fielder and batting .417, was fifth. Catcher Megan Bondy of Mystic was eighth.
Meanwhile, Waterford's Erin Miller pitched the first four innings of the 10-0 victory, allowing just three hits and getting a 5-4 double play started by Cooper to end the third after Miller walked the leadoff batter.
As for Hancock, a four-year starter at Waterford, Pepin said she saw right away during the fall season - when Hancock was holding her own in a game against UConn - that she was a good athlete and a competitor.
"I knew she had it in her," Pepin said.
"When we went to Florida I said, 'I can't be nervous anymore,'" Hancock said. "I just played my game. I had to prove myself. I'm earning my spot; I have to fight to keep my spot. You work as hard as you can. You can't just walk to your position, you run. If you do something wrong, your players call you out, not to be mean, just to teach you. There's mistakes, but it's how you pick yourself up after that counts. ... I'm just grateful."
Hancock's first official day as a Warrior in Clermont, Fla., she spent doubling. And homering.
In Saturday's Game 1, she launched a long fly ball to right field that dropped for an error, scoring two runs to tie the game at 3-3. Hancock wound up at third and later scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch. She added a single and scored in a six-run fourth in the second game.
Eastern came into the doubleheader hitting .391 as a team, leading the nation with 39 doubles.
"I wouldn't say I was worried (before the season). Coach is always putting people in that are going to do their job," Cooper said of the Warriors' new-look lineup. "Me not being able to hit the ball (due to walks) is fine. ... We're not going to win games 1-0. That's just the game now."