Practicing in the rugby room of the University of Mary athletic facility, junior Colleen Crutchfield waited for the weighted softball to enter the strike zone at the precise spot so she could smack the ball up the middle. If she did this, it would bounce safely off the wall. But if she pulled it, as had been her habit in previous seasons, the ball would strike glass.
Despite the suboptimal conditions, it was this practice that led to her best season to date and her first collegiate all-conference honor.
Playing multiple positions for the University of Mary softball team, the Canby graduate dramatically improved her batting average from previous seasons and earned Second Team All-Northern Sun Conference honors.
Crutchfield was a productive cog during her first two collegiate seasons but was more of a power hitter than a mainstay on the base paths.
In her first year she started 51 of 53 games, hit five home runs and drove in 22 runs. And in her second year, after switching back to her high school swing, she hit nine home runs and accumulated an impressive .548 slugging percentage.
But she felt like she was too reliant on her power and pulling the ball off of inside pitches. So she worked in the offseason to improve her up the middle and opposite field hitting.
Crutchfield worked out in the rugby room because the university was renovating the team's field house.
"It wasn't the best situation but we were able to work through it," Crutchfield said.
To achieve her desired result, she altered her swing tendencies.
"To hit it up the middle you have to wait for it to get deeper into the zone as compared to pulling a pitch where you can hit it earlier. I was letting it come in, waiting on it and thinking about staying through it longer," Crutchfield said.
In turn, Crutchfield became a more versatile and much different hitter. Instead of hitting for power, Crutchfield became a consistent contact hitter.
This year, Crutchfield batted .340, raising her average by .073 points from the previous season, and finished third on the team in batting average and base hits. And she says she hit about 50 percent of her hits up the middle or to the opposite field – a dramatic change from previous years. She was consistently determined to reach base and put pressure on the opposing pitcher and defense.
In fact, before entering the batter's box, she would tell her first base coach: "I'll see to at first."
"I focused more on hitting it up the middle just because I usually am a pull hitter and I didn't want our team to have to rely so much on the home run. My focus was to just get on base and get a base runner on. It let me be more versatile at the plate. It's not just hitting an inside pitch. I can hit an outside pitch. Thinking up the middle opened up my zone incredibly," she said.
Similar to the team's overall performance, Crutchfield improved as the season wore on. She accumulated just one hit in her first four games and 31 hits in her final 25 games. Meanwhile, the team lost eight of its first nine games and then won seven of its final 11 games and finished with a 20-35 record.
"We started playing a lot better toward the end of the year. Before conference, we were mixing people up a lot. In conference we knew where everyone was going to play and we knew our strengths. We knew each other a lot better," Crutchfield said.
Crutchfield, who played catcher in her first two seasons, had to play third base for much of the league season after the team's starting third baseman suffered an injury. She prefers playing catcher but wasn't fazed by the move.
"I felt more comfortable at catcher because every single practice I would catch the pitchers and would know what was happening. I liked third and did feel comfortable there but I did like catching a lot more," Crutchfield said.
Despite playing out of position for much of the league season, Crutchfield still earned all-conference honors. She was surprised to earn the distinction.
"My teammates texted me and said 'Congrats.' I said 'Congrats to what?' I was surprised and then I was really happy because I put in a lot of work in the offseason and was happy to see that it paid off. Even though I played conference mostly at third base, not my best position, this conference knows I'm a player. It was really cool to find out," Crutchfield said.