Sarah Pauly still going strong
When it was still just a number in what seemed a distant future, Sarah Pauly attached herself to the notion she would like to pitch until she was 30 years old.
She reached that rare softball milestone. And she kept going.
In a league celebrating its 10th anniversary, and that at one time or another has featured pitching names such as Monica Abbott, Jennie Finch, Danielle Lawrie, Cat Osterman and Angela Tincher, the 30-year-old Pauly is National Pro Fastpitch's all-time leader in wins and innings pitched. She is one of only three active players, along with USSSA Pride teammate Kelly Kretschman and Chicago Bandits infielder Vicky Galindo, who have at least eight seasons of NPF experience.
But unlike Kretschman, Galindo and the majority of players with more than even a few years of service, she is not the product of the United States national team. She is the product solely of a professional softball league. Which means it isn't the numbers that make her career remarkable. It's the career itself.
"She's arguably been the most consistent pitcher in the league her entire career," said Pride catcher and former U.S. Olympian Lauren Lappin. "She's kept her head above water with pitchers like Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott. She competes right along with them. A lot of that is her physical talent, but [it's also] her ability to continue to push herself because I think she has a chip on her shoulder, she has something to prove."
Not that she set out to do all of this, hatched some plan years ago and scrupulously stuck to it through thick and thin. It certainly wasn't inevitable. An Arizona native, Pauly wasn't the big recruiting prize for Pac-12 powers when she came out of high school. She visited UNLV and wanted to go to Cal State Fullerton until coaches there told her they were interested as long as she redshirted her freshman year, but she eventually settled on Texas A&M Corpus Christi. That a program then without conference affiliation was on the remotest fringes of the Division I frontier didn't matter as much as the sense the Islanders wanted her.
"I wasn't looking at anything other than the university degree program that I wanted to be in, which was marine biology at the time, and the way they treated me," Pauly said. "I didn't care that they didn't have a football team. I didn't care that we weren't in a conference. I didn't look at those things. I know a lot of kids going in these days only want to play in the SEC or only want to play at a big school. I didn't see it that way.
"I wanted to be somewhere that I knew I could make a difference, and where I would have a lot of pitching time."
When it comes to a school that bills itself as the only institution in the nation on its own island, the beach didn't hurt, either.
Eventually a part of the Big South, a conference otherwise closer to the Atlantic Ocean than the Gulf of Mexico, the Islanders played all of their conference games each season in a single week. That was true throughout most of Pauly's career (the school subsequently joined the more geographically sensible Southland Conference). Her sophomore season, for instance, they loaded up, drove around 20 hours and then played doubleheaders against the rest of the conference for six consecutive days. The pitcher responsible for many of those innings caught a break the next two seasons -- the team got one whole day of rest in the middle of the grueling stretch.
Despite that scheduling, Texas A&M Corpus Christi won the Big South in each of Pauly's final three seasons and played in three consecutive NCAA tournaments. Her first postseason start came in 2003 against a fellow sophomore who was the ace for the University of Texas and about to embark on an Olympic journey. It wouldn't be the last time she shared a field, if not the spotlight, with the more heralded Osterman.
Pauly turned out to be a great college pitcher. She ranks 18th in NCAA history in career strikeouts. Only four pitchers who struck out at least 1,000 batters rank ahead of her in career strikeouts per seven innings: Osterman, Tincher, Abbott and Sara Plourde. She is also tied for 24th in career saves, a measure of how much she meant to a program for which she made 129 starts.
Unaware of the then-fledgling NPF when she finished at Corpus Christi, she spent her first summer after college with the Stratford Brakettes, a Connecticut-based amateur team famous within the sport and for which Osterman also pitched that summer. When the Brakettes fielded a professional team the following summer, Pauly found herself in the NPF.
In her first pro season, she went 15-5 with a 1.24 ERA and 138 strikeouts, the league leader in ERA and tied for the lead in wins. A year later, she again ranked in the top five in all three categories.
Still, despite all that, she remained well out of the spotlight. She spent time in 2007 with a USA Softball training team. It was there that Lappin recalled getting a first look at the lithe, 6-foot-3 righty with good movement and an effective changeup. But it was a stay that ultimately ended well short of the Olympic team that would compete the following year. It might have helped if it hadn't taken so long to get that first audition.
"I quickly learned that softball was all about politics at that point," Pauly said. "Why, if I have the same talent level as another girl, will I not make the USA team? Is it because of the name of the school I came from? That was a battle with me because I didn't understand why it had to be so political. I'm just as good, or I felt like I'm just as good, so why would you not pick me? I grew up, I got over it."
And she went back to winning NPF games. The national team offered structure and stability for those involved in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic cycles. The financial stipends weren't windfalls, but they beat the money available in the pro league. And when summer competition ended, national team players at least still had benefits such as a strength coach to steer their offseason training. It isn't a coincidence those players are so well represented among NPF players now in their late 20s or early 30s. The national team was a bridge to building a life around playing softball. Once separated from the structure of college softball, Pauly was largely left to find her own way.
"The challenge is maintaining it," Pauly said. "You don't have 6 a.m. workouts that you have to be at. You don't get penalized for not showing up. It's all on you. You have to find other things to motivate you to wake up in the morning."
To make her way through the offseasons, she coached at Spartanburg Methodist College with her father Rick, a longtime coach and accomplished softball player himself. A stint at the College of Charleston followed, then a season in the Japanese professional league in 2011 in which she and Lappin were teammates. After she returned from Japan, she joined her alma mater as an assistant. Each summer she went back to the circle.
At some point it was clear she wasn't putting her life on hold to keep playing softball. It was her life.
"I felt that my passion for softball from when I started playing was kind of gray up until college," Pauly said. "You kind of knew what you wanted, but you weren't quite sure. Then in college, you're told what to do. It's all written out for you. If you follow the directions, you're going to succeed. In the pro league, it doesn't come with a handbook. You have to find the passion from within yourself to keep going."
Pauly celebrated her 30th birthday in January. As the season approached, she thought this would be her final summer. Those months are a busy time for college recruiting, and as supportive as Texas A&M Corpus Christi has been, she felt it might be time to make a full-time commitment (although having the NPF's all-time wins leader can't be a bad recruiting asset). She went back and forth on the decision. But in the end, it wasn't time. Not yet. Not this year and not next year.
With 30 behind her she needed a new goal. She settled on the only one that made sense.
"I'm going to go with not quitting until my arm falls off," Pauly said.
And a career unlike any other continues.