At Saugus High softball practice Monday, as coach Julie Archer whipped underhand ground balls toward infielders at close range and pitchers fine-tuned mechanics near the batting cages, a dominant presence was noticeably missing.
For the previous four seasons, the Centurions rose and fell with the rocket-launching right arm of Mariah Lopez.
Now, with Lopez at the University of Oklahoma, circle duties have fallen to three relatively inexperienced underclassmen.
But, they’ve hardly been left to sink or swim on their own.
In fact, the trio has a feisty, experienced and empathetic catcher — namely, senior Cassidy FitzGerald — who refuses to let them bend to the whims of anxiety.
Lopez is gone, but the backbone of Saugus’ softball program remains.
In their shoes
FitzGerald can empathize with Saugus High’s young pitching staff, because she’s been where they are.
As a freshman, FitzGerald started at catcher on varsity, working with Lopez, already the Foothill League’s premier flamethrower, and, as FitzGerald puts it, wearing a target on her back.
“Coming in freshman year and catching, I knew it was going to be difficult,” FitzGerald says. “I knew I was going to have a target on my back either from teammates or other catchers that were obviously older than me just because they’re like, ‘Oh, who is this freshman?’”
They quickly found out.
In addition to making only two errors the entire season, FitzGerald hit .347 with 18 RBIs and made first team All-Santa Clarita Valley.
“She stepped into a huge role her freshman year, obviously,” Archer says. “Freshman year some kids are nervous but then (you add that she was) catching Mariah, who is a great pitcher and throws hard. But Cassidy really took on that leadership role from the beginning as a freshman.”
Now, three years later, it’s FitzGerald’s job to make junior Angeline Riley, sophomore Leslie Reynaga and freshman Libbie McMahan feel comfortable. That group isn’t catching Lopez, but they’re tasked with following her dominant act.
FitzGerald has made it more manageable.
“When I’m struggling, she’ll say like, ‘I got you if you make a mistake,’” Riley says. “‘I’ll get you. I’ll pick you up.’ That stuff boosts my confidence a lot.”
McMahan, who had to jump right into softball after finishing her varsity basketball season, says, “As a freshman, it’s really nice having a senior as a catcher. Cassidy is very supportive behind the plate. It’s very encouraging having someone be able to support me no matter what’s going on.”
That’s not to say FitzGerald coddles the staff.
As a freshman, her booming voice already echoed around the diamond, alerting teammates to a fast runner on first base or to a first-and-third situation.
FitzGerald isn’t easily intimidated. She knows how things should be done. She lets it be known.
“She is very bold and she knows what she wants,” McMahan says. “Sometimes she might come across as hard, but she’s always there and she’s always supportive and nice to everyone.”
Any strong words, though, have hardly scared the young pitchers off.
Said Riley, “She’s always been such an open person to where I want to be able to pitch well for her.”
There’s also a level of respect that comes with FitzGerald having worked with Lopez for three years.
“Playing with Cassidy is almost like a privilege,” Riley says.
FitzGerald, who’s hitting .301 this season with four home runs and 13 RBIs, has also garnered respect because she’s signed to play at NCAA Division 1 Idaho State.
She says she chose the Pocatello, Idaho, school because she likes the small, college-town feel.
“It takes roughly 15 minutes to walk from one side to the other,” she says. “I’m definitely a girl who loves big, wide-open property. I don’t like people right on top of me like it is here. (Pocatello) is very college-town based. You can go to the market and know people, and they’ll ask me, ‘How was your game?’”
The coaches at Idaho State made her feel at home.
Exactly what she’s doing for Saugus’ new pitchers.
Saugus opens Foothill League play today at 3:15 p.m. at Canyon High.