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Emma Mendoker ready for UMass softball season

  • University of Massachusetts redshirt freshman Emma Mendoker pitches in a makeshift bullpen inside Boyden Gymnasium on Wednesday. The Amherst native spent a year at East Carolina before returning home to pitch for the Minutewomen.

    University of Massachusetts redshirt freshman Emma Mendoker pitches in a makeshift bullpen inside Boyden Gymnasium on Wednesday. The Amherst native spent a year at East Carolina before returning home to pitch for the Minutewomen. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Emma Mendoker of Amherst pitches at the curtain during softball practice at UMASS Amherst on January 23, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Emma Mendoker of Amherst pitches at the curtain during softball practice at UMASS Amherst on January 23, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • University of Massachusetts redshirt freshman Emma Mendoker pitches in a makeshift bullpen inside Boyden Gymnasium on Wednesday. The Amherst native spent a year at East Carolina before returning home to pitch for the Minutewomen.
  • Emma Mendoker of Amherst pitches at the curtain during softball practice at UMASS Amherst on January 23, 2013.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

AMHERST — The top floor of Boyden Gymnasium was mostly quiet Wednesday afternoon except for the periodic smack of a softball greeting a catcher’s mitt at high speed.

With the weather not suitable for outdoor softball, University of Massachusetts coach Elaine Sortino created a makeshift bullpen on the basketball court. There, redshirt freshman Emma Mendoker threw while her coach offered advice and suggestions after each offering.

It looks like a tedious process — adjusting her shoulder, tweaking her elbow and wrist movement a little bit to find the optimum pitching motion. But Mendoker, a former star pitcher at Amherst Regional, is enjoying the process.

A year ago, she was a freshman at East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., getting ready for her first collegiate season after a standout high school career. But just a few days before the season, she felt a pop in her shoulder that was later diagnosed as a torn biceps tendon. It ended her season.

With the ECU program in some turmoil — head coach Tracy Kee was suspended and eventually fired — Mendoker elected to start fresh at home where she’ll rejoin high school teammate Quianna Diaz-Patterson.

“We talked almost every day. She told me how much she loved UMass,” Mendoker said. “It made me kind of want to be here.”

With a working arm and comfortable surroundings, Mendoker was happy again and shares Diaz-Patterson’s feelings toward the program.

“I absolutely love UMass. I love my team and I love my coaches. I really have no complaints,” she said smiling. “I’m home here. The ECU team was great, but I feel more comfortable here. It’s nice being close to home. I get to see my parents more. They can drive two minutes to see a game instead of two hours on a plane.”

Sortino was glad to have her.

“Any time you get a quality human being like that, she’s a great addition. She’s a fabulous kid and a team player. It was good for UMass softball,” Sortino said. “She was ‘the one that got away’ when she decided to go to ECU. We recruited her late. She came on a little bit late. I think at that time it was the right decision for her, but it’s great to have her back.”

When the injury first occurred, Mendoker was worried she might never pitch again.

“When I tore my biceps tendon I was really scared. It was almost completely torn off. If it did that, I wouldn’t be playing softball,” she said. “With my arm in a sling, it was really scary. My arm is my weapon in softball. It was a wake-up call. It made me appreciate the game more.”

But after months of rehab at Aegis Physical Therapy in Hadley, Mendoker is pitching again.

While Mendoker’s arm is pain free, she’s still working to get back to the form that made her an outstanding high school pitcher and a much sought-after high school recruit. Sortino’s standard operating procedure with any pitcher, even ones that weren’t injured, is to break down every part of their delivery and fine tune it for maximum efficiency.

“It’s like rebuilding an engine,” she said. “Even if she hadn’t gotten injured, we’d be rebuilding the engine.”

Sortino said Mendoker’s intelligence has helped speed the improvement along.

“She’s a student of the game. She’s very, very diligent and determined. She participates in trying to solve the issues. Pitchers have to be very, very active in their brains and engaged,” Sortino said. “Some of them tend to be robotic and will just do something. This one is definitely into her workouts. How she has progressed since August in unbelievable. It’s fun to have a kid that’s so engaged with you. This is a good match. I really enjoy her. She’s a character.”

Mendoker can see the progress.

“I definitely had a lot of bad habits in high school and at ECU. I’m working to try to get a really good motion,” she said. “I feel like I’m getting stronger. But I’m not quite there yet.”

Mendoker will be part of a young pitching staff competing to replace three-year ace Sara Plourde, who graduated last year. She’ll be joined by junior Caroline Raymond, who also missed last year with an injury, and sophomores Bridget Lemire and Lindsey Webster, who each pitched sparingly as freshmen. Sortino wasn’t sure how the rotation would shake out.

“We’re waiting for the cream to rise to the top,” she said. “We have a very young pitching staff. None of them really have any experience as far as I’m concerned.”

With the FAU Kickoff Classic, UMass’ season opening tournament, looming on Feb. 15, Mendoker was eager to get started.

“I’m so excited. My team is so great. We all get along. I’m really excited to play with them. I’m really excited to show everybody my new motion,” she said. “When the season starts, I’m hopefully going to be ready, but my focus is to progress every day.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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