Ever since TWU’s Sarah Wittenburg began playing softball at age 6, her father stressed the importance of being able to play multiple positions.
In her third season at TWU, the junior has taken her dad’s advice to heart. With the Pioneers’ catcher from last season unable to play this year, Wittenburg has taken over behind the plate without missing a beat.
Playing second base last season and right field her freshman year, Wittenburg always was looking to round out her skills at catcher — the position she was recruited to play.
Graduate assistant coach and former starting catcher Tiffany Weise took Wittenburg under her wing during her freshman season, teaching her the tricks of the trade whenever she got a chance.
“I just took bullpen practice all the time and I had Tiffany Weise by my side,” Wittenburg said. “I wasn’t too great at blocking when I came in, so she helped me with that and making sure I knew the ins and outs of pitch calling.”
With the looming hole at catcher leading up to this season and coach Genny Stidham’s propensity for using utility players, Wittenburg’s skills became invaluable.
“You have players that can play one position but not another, and Sarah can do it all,” Stidham said. “I’d have no problem putting her in center field at any time, and I can’t say the same for everyone else. She has that mindset and understanding of the game that she knows what she needs to do. We need more players like that. They can embrace that or they can fight that, and Sarah has been a team player, so she embraces that.”
Along with her defensive prowess behind the plate and intense focus, Wittenburg’s value has shined when interacting with pitchers — a responsibility she takes pride in.
“As a catcher, you’re kind of in control of most everything,” Wittenburg said. “Me and all the pitchers are really close, so we know the ins and outs of each other. So when we get in a tough situation, I know how to go out there and approach them to help out their mental game to get them back on top.”
With senior pitcher Katie Hines specializing in a dropball that frequently finds itself in the dirt, Stidham said Wittenburg’s defensive role as part of the battery cannot be overstated.
“It’s extremely important because Katie throws the balls consistently in the dirt,” Stidham said. “You don’t feel as confident throwing those if you don’t know if somebody back there is going to handle them. Very few balls have gotten by her. She just does a tremendous job back there behind the plate.”
Wittenburg’s true worth might lie in being a leader and an extension of Stidham’s coaching on the field.
“The girls look to her, especially the underclassmen,” Stidham said. “She will guide those pitchers if she thinks there are issues or she thinks they’re struggling. I only get one conference an inning, and there’s been times I’ve needed one, two or three more and Sarah just takes on that responsibility. She can tell if a pitcher doesn’t want to throw a pitch that’s called.”
Hitting .305 on the season, Wittenburg has given the Pioneers some key offense in the middle of the lineup.
“Usually you can go through a lineup and look at their statistics to see how valuable they are, but I don’t know that you can look at hers and truly see how valuable she is. She has hit the ball well this year, and her defense has been awesome because she has very few errors.
“She’s irreplaceable. She may not have the stats that the rest of those girls do, but in my book, all around, she’s an All-American. She’ll stand up for her teammates. She’s just a great student-athlete.”
The Pioneers are about to embark on their postseason journey Friday at the Lone Star Conference tournament in Canyon following a 33-16 regular season. After last year’s run to the national tournament, Wittenburg feels a responsibility to impress upon the new players exactly what it will take to return there.
“I’m trying to help the new ones realize the importance of it, because obviously all the returners know what it takes to get to nationals, so every game counts,” Wittenburg said. “It’s the little things. We have to step up. Us upperclassmen and returners have to be leaders on and off the field. We have to be there for each other to pick each other up, whether it’s hitting or fielding.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.