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'Flick:' the rise of Kaitlyn Stavinoha By Amin Touri

Kaitlyn Stavinoha stepped to the plate to lead off the eighth, adrenaline still pumping.

Minutes earlier, the Massachusetts softball team—down to its last out—had completed a dramatic comeback to tie things at 2-2 in the Atlantic 10 championship against Fordham, coming back from the brink of elimination to stay alive.

Stavinoha—affectionately known as “Flick” to her teammates—got ahead on a 2-1 count and took an inside fastball down the right field line, sliding into third with a leadoff triple, screaming in the direction of her dugout and slapping hands with coach Kristi Stefanoni, emotion on full display.

Two pitches later, Jena Cozza plated Stavinoha with a sacrifice fly to put the Minutewomen up 3-2, and Meg Colleran shut the door in the bottom of the eighth to seal the win.

There was only one problem—in a double elimination tournament, UMass had to beat Fordham again to take the title. When Madison Aughinbaugh’s single dropped into shallow right in the bottom of the ninth in the winner-take-all finale, the Rams stormed the field at the George Mason Softball Complex, claiming their fifth consecutive conference triumph.

Stavinoha’s pair of hits in the decider were the last of a major breakout campaign for the sophomore shortstop, a season in which she made the leap from a light-hitting second baseman to one of the conference’s best infielders.

But the numbers she put up in 2017, impressive as they were, couldn’t change the numbers on the scoreboard that day in Fairfax.

With a year to kill before their next chance to rectify that defeat, the Minutewomen haven’t forgotten that loss—least of all Kaitlyn Stavinoha.

It all started with a nickname.

A native of The Woodlands, Texas, Stavinoha reached high school as the smallest of her peers, standing a towering 5 feet tall, tipping the scales at 95 pounds soaking wet.

“So, my freshman year of high school I was super tiny,” Stavinoha explains. “One of my older teammates thought I looked like the ant from ‘A Bug’s Life.’ It stuck ever since.”

It’s not the sort of nickname that gets thrown around occasionally. It’s replaced her given name entirely in her softball circles, to the point where the use of the name “Kaitlyn” at practice throws her off.

“Oh, everyone calls her Flick,” says Colleran. “People say Kaitlyn, and we’re like, who’s Kaitlyn? Who are you talking about? No, she’s Flick. (Kaitlyn)’s not her name.”

“Flick” eventually grew out of that miniature frame, and these days stands closer to 5-foot-7. Though she grew up just north of Houston, her southern drawl—which her teammates will swear never existed to begin with—has all but evaporated, her occasional bragging about the Astros’ World Series win the only giveaway of her Texas roots.

She’s a big personality, an energetic character with a competitive streak a mile long and the skills to back it up. She’s superstitious as all hell—Erin Stacevicz hits in front of her, and a firm, exaggerated handshake between the two is a must before every at-bat—and her drive to win is nearly unmatched.

2017 was Stavinoha’s coming-out party, as she stepped up in a big way for the Minutewomen. She moved from the eight-hole into the heart of the order, splitting the season in the second and third spots in the lineup and flourishing.

Stavinoha’s 38 RBIs last spring more than doubled the production of any other Minutewoman, accounting for nearly a quarter of the team’s total run production.

Her .358 batting average was good for sixth in the entire A-10, second among shortstops. Along with a .402 on-base percentage and .460 slugging, flashing some power with 11 doubles, a pair of triples and a homerun last season, Stavinoha put up one of the finest offensive seasons of any shortstop in the conference.

She’d probably have been an All-Conference selection at any other position, if not for the surplus of superstar shortstops in the A-10. She’s one of the conference’s best hitters, and backs it up with stellar defense up the middle. Stavinoha’s been shifted around plenty, from third to second to short, but she’s been a plus defender regardless of where she stands.

“One hundred percent (confidence),” Colleran says. “I know that every time she’s behind me, I’m like, ‘she’s good. She’s locked in.’ Never have to question that.”

She’s blossomed into a star with a bat and with the leather, but the former attribute is new. She was excellent defensively as a freshman, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing at the plate during Stavinoha’s rookie campaign, a letdown first act for her offensively.

And frankly, she almost didn’t end up at UMass to begin with.

A superstar at The Woodlands High School, Stavinoha had been in talks with Dartmouth for some time, and expected to find herself in Hanover, New Hampshire. But after things with the Big Green fell through—a turn of events she called “devastating” at the time—some encouragement from her travel coach got an initially reluctant Stavinoha to take an official visit.

A connection with fellow Houston native Staci Ramsey, an assistant coach at UMass for the 2014 season and a close friend of Stavinoha’s travel ball coach, helped bring her to Amherst late in the recruiting period.

“I got here and was like this is really cool, everyone’s super nice,” she says. “I love the area, love the campus, I loved Kristi and I just felt at home here, changed my mind quick when I went on my visit.”

She came in ready to make in impact, and appeared to be on track for superstardom at the collegiate level. Stavinoha earned A-10 Rookie of the Week honors after her first weekend in a maroon uniform, batting .400 with a triple and three RBIs in UMass’ opening weekend in 2016, picking up right where she left off in Texas.

But it didn’t last—Stavinoha came crashing back down to Earth, and finished the season batting .215 with a .237 on-base and slugging .262, a positively pedestrian stat line for a hitter of Stavinoha’s caliber and confidence.

“I guess it’s just a mentality thing,” Stavinoha says. “A lot of times people tell you that you’re just going to come in and take it by storm, but sometimes it doesn’t go that way, it ‘s a bit of a different game in college.”

The version of Stavinoha that suited up for 2017 was nothing like the previous year’s edition. Her stat line shot up, as she made the leap from a serviceable eight hitter—if only for her stellar defense—to tearing the cover off the ball.

“I think she just gained a lot of confidence,” Colleran says. “She went home after her freshman year and really put in a lot of work, she came in right from the fall and she was ready to go.”

“I really think that she knew what she wanted—to win an A-10 championship,” said Stefanoni. “I think that’s been in the forefront of her mind, in the summer and in the fall.”

For Stavinoha, the jump wasn’t a surprise. Her freshman year was a letdown—she sees that rookie campaign as an underachievement rather than the second act as a revelation. A bit of the change was mechanics, moving away from slap hitting to stay planted in the box, but she thinks it all came down to an attitude shift.

“I was kind of like, screw this,” Stavinoha says. “I’m good, and I’m just going to do what I need to do to contribute to the team.

“I was sick of sucking,” she adds with a laugh.

Her breakout came at the perfect time—with senior Jena Cozza, the team’s best hitter and perhaps the conference’s best defensive shortstop, missing the first 29 games with a knee injury, Stavinoha shifted to the most crucial spots in the lineup—playing shortstop and hitting third—and never missed a beat.

“Last year, in preseason, I wasn’t feeling pressure,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking ‘oh my gosh, I need to fill Jena’s shoes, I need to fill Jena’s shoes.’ I was just thinking that I need to hit, I need to do what needs to be done to help the team, to produce some runs and some offense.”

“I really didn’t even notice with her,” says Stefanoni. “She didn’t make a huge deal about it, she was never nervous, and if she was she never showed it, ever. Her play at practice, her body language, she knew what we had to do.”

The loss to Fordham in May still drives Stavinoha, but truthfully, it’s not like she really needs the extra motivation anyways. She’s an insane competitor; it’s her innate need to win anything and everything that pushes her forward.

“Oh, yeah, forget it,” said Stacevicz. “If we’re doing anything competitive, (Stavinoha) has to win. If we do team activities for fun, she goes all out. She has a personality of a competitor, I don’t even know what to compare it to.”

It’s not just softball—it’s literally everything.

“Oh, she’s so competitive, about everything,” Colleran says. “Stupid stuff. It could be who’s going to get to that door faster, who’s going to put their stuff away faster, she wins everything. Everything with her is a competition, no matter what, she’s never not in that competitive mode.”

Stefanoni calls her shortstop the most “outwardly competitive” member of the team; she’ll tell you herself that she needs to win. She needs to win pre-game hacky sack, she needs to have the tightest spiral when the team throws around a football, it doesn’t matter.

And though she doesn’t need the extra drive from that loss to Fordham, it doesn’t hurt. It’s run through her mind for months, as she prepares through the summer and the fall for an encore of her 2017 performance.

“We were heartbroken,” Stavinoha says. “It was rough. We thought we had it—we knew we did, we knew we were going to win. We won the first game, pushed it to two, and it was really a dogfight through the end. It was heartbreaking, and it took a while to get over it. We’re still a little sore from it.

It didn’t help that her summer training was hundreds of miles away, and wouldn’t come to fruition for a full year.

“It burned, it really did,” she says. “You don’t have an opportunity to come right back out and do anything. You’re on your own, you’re so far away from your team… it forces you to make yourself work hard, and to keep the goal in mind, that sucked and you don’t want to feel like that anymore. So it was just a lot of hard work, and trying to keep the fire burning. I think it really helps.”

She’s got other losses to reflect on too—a trip to the Class 5A title game as a junior ended bitterly, as did a semifinal run as a senior. UMass finished third her freshman year along with last-year’s runner-up showing, and it feels like she needs to finally win one—and she sure thinks this is the year.

“I think about it all the time,” Stavinoha says. “It’s hard for me to not be like ‘oh my god, I’m cursed.’ I always make it so far and it just doesn’t end up working out. But I don’t know, this year it really does just feel like things are how they’re supposed to be. Freshman year third, last year second, it just feels like a script that’s being written, that this is our year, it has to happen. We want it for the seniors, we want it for the coaches, it feels like this is the year that we’re finally going to take it.”

Nine months removed from that A-10 title game, Kaitlyn Stavinoha has goals aplenty for 2018, from another jump in her production at the plate to another stellar season with her glove.

But revenge—the opportunity she’s waited so long for—sits at the forefront.

The road to UMass’ first A-10 title in six years runs through Fordham; the Rams are heavy favorites to take it again, and will host this year’s championships.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” Stavinoha said. “I think it’s going to fire us up to be at their field, and I think it’s just going to take it up a level… we’re ready to show everybody that we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder from last year.”

There are multiple other quality teams in the conference—Dayton and Saint Joseph’s are threats against anyone—but Fordham and UMass appear to be on a collision course to meet again, with everything on the line.

The Minutewomen are ready, and so is Flick. If you believe everything Stavinoha says, Fordham better be too.

Amin Touri can be reached at atouri@umass.edu, and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.

(All photos are Collegian file photos)

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