By Greg Klein STAFF WRITER
---- — Nicole Cring’s success on the softball diamond was obvious to everyone who watched her play, but what people couldn’t see was her preparation.
Unlike Cring, most people aren’t up at 5:30 a.m.
The Cooperstown pitcher set single season school records in 2012 with 15 wins and 216 strikeouts, only to shatter those records in 2013 with 20 wins, 232 strikeouts and a .062 earned run average. Her career ERA of 1.24 is a school record too.
In the off-season, Cring would get up at 5:30 a.m., so she could go to nearby Hartwick and work on her throws with her pitching coach Tom Weeks. On average, Cring threw four times a week; the early morning workouts a necessity so she could play basketball in the winter or keep up with her school work.
“The hardest thing was getting up at 5:30 in the morning,” she said, “getting up to pitch so that I could get it in before school and get in it before basketball practice. I guess there have been times where I would have rather slept in, but I always wanted to get better.”
She didn’t start her throwing routine during her varsity career at CCS, her junior varsity career, or even during her modified career.
“I’ve been throwing since the end of sixth grade,” Cring said. “I’ve gone to about 10 different coaches to learn new mechanics and apply them to my pitching. I have learned something from every one of them. It wasn’t a quick process. Each time I learned new mechanics, it tended to mess up my other pitches and I had to relearn them too. Sometimes it was four steps back to take another two steps forward.”
It was a combination of the dedication that almost no one got to see and the results that everyone did see that made Cring the 2013 Daily Star softball Player of the Year. She is the first Cooperstown softball player to win the award.
It was a season of firsts for CCS. The team won its first league title, winning the Center State Conference Division Three title with a perfect 12-0 record. It beat rival Hamilton for the first time – or at least the first time that anyone in the program can remember – and followed that up by sweeping the Emerald Knights. On April 26, Cring pitched a perfect game against Morrisville-Eaton, which her coaches believe was the first perfect game in school history. Then Cooperstown had its first undefeated regular season. Finally, CCS softball won its first share of a section crown, taking the Section Three, C-1 title with a 2-1 win over Herkimer on May 30 before losing to C-2 champ Sandy Creek 6-4 on June 1 at Le Moyne College.
Cring shined in that game too, bringing her team back from a 6-0 deficit with a grand slam.
As good as they were, Cring’s pitching stats were comparable to Oneonta sophomore Brianna Baker’s, but it was her batting stats that helped put her in a class by herself this season. Cring hit .451 with eight home runs, six triples, four doubles, 35 RBIs, 23 runs and a slugging average of 1.014.
“It’s funny, because I just saw Bri play at a 16-and-under tournament,” Cring said of her teammate on the elite summer-league TC Tremors. “She’s a great player. It is a real honor to win it over her.”
In addition to her pitching records, Cring leaves Cooperstown with the highest single season batting average (.451) and the single season record for triples (6); she is also tied with Maggie Hall for career triples with 9.
While her pitching improved in early morning sessions with Weeks in Hartwick, her hitting skills got progressively better the past two seasons with the Tremors on Sundays during the travel season.
“That was all because of Sunday practice,” she said. “We would have these three hour long hitting practices. We had a really good hitting coach come in, Rob Crews. He taught me so many things. I think the most important thing was he taught me to sit back and relax at the plate … just how to breathe and relax into my swing.”
Cooperstown coach Dave Bliss said his team will miss everything about Cring next season.
“We’re going to miss her in the circle and we’re going to miss her at the plate,” Bliss said. “We’re going to miss her leadership and her work ethic. She has really shown the other girls how to work hard.”
In the circle, Cring had five pitches: a curveball, a drop curveball, a sinker, a screwball and a fastball; but it was her fastball, which could hit 60-plus miles per hour, which was her best one.
“Obviously that was her top pitch,” Bliss said, “but she was able to mix it up so you couldn’t time her fastball. She threw lots of strikes and not many balls. She didn’t walk a lot of people.”
Actually, she walked only 26 people all season, or 1.24 walks per game.
Cring’s 35 career varsity wins in two seasons is 10 behind Anna Sams record of 45, but Sams pitched for four varsity seasons, 2008-2011, at CCS. To be fair to Sams, she never pitched as many games or innings in a season as Cring did the past two years. This season, Cring pitched in 21 games, going 20-1, and 146 innings; her backup, Ellen Vibbard, pitched just twice, eight innings total this year.
Following Sams was a big motivation for Cring.
“I was always trying to push myself more, because I wanted to prove to myself I could be as good as her,” Cring said. “My sophomore year, I wanted to show the coaches I could pitch some of the innings and do as well as her.”
Likewise, Cring said she knows that someone will follow her at Cooperstown, motivated to knock down her records.
“We’ve got a lot of good athletes coming up,” she said. “I think the Clark Sports Center definitely helps a lot. People are always there working to get better. We’ve even got people coming up at the junior high level that are going to be good. Even as early as fourth and fifth grade, there are kids that are going to be good.”
Cring’s orientation at Springfield College begins Aug. 30. She’ll major in health and physical education and she hopes to continue to play softball. But she will have to try out for the team first.
“Everybody tries out every year,” she said. “Even the seniors have to try out for the team. It is a little nerve racking since I am still not sure I will be playing. My roommate for college is a catcher, so I will be able to get a lot of practice in.”
Of course, that won’t be anything new for Cring.
“She’s definitely a hard worker,” Bliss said. “I expect she will make the team and do well in college. I don’t know if it will be the varsity team right away because in college a lot of it has to do with who they have at the position. I don’t know who is in front of her. I know they have a pretty good reputation.”
Cring said she won’t forget her teams, friends and family back home. She said she plans to return to see as many Cooperstown basketball and softball games as she can the next few years. Her little sister, Paige, will be playing soon and her parents still work at the school; her dad Michael is the middle/high school principal. Her older sister, Katie Miller, and her husband, Ben, are nearby too. In fact, Cring said the one thing people don’t realize is how close she is to her family, and how much their support has helped her.
“My sisters, my brother-in-law, my parents have been such a support,” she said. “I am very family oriented, and I am extremely lucky to have a family so supportive of me. They drive me (to tournaments) everywhere. I don’t know what I am going to do without them driving me around.”
When she looks back at her high school career, Cring said she will cherish her senior year the most with the Section Three, Class C title in basketball, the season of firsts in softball and finally beating Hamilton in softball after so many tries.
“I can definitely say I will look back and feel good about all those wins,” she said. “Even after the Sandy Creek game, I felt amazing about what we had accomplished, and how we came back against them. Knowing that I was part of the team that won its first banner and got farther than any team in school history … Those were the goals we set at the beginning of the season. To know we accomplished them, that is by far definitely going to be one of my favorites memories.”