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JMU softball outfielder Michelle Sullivan makes a catch against UNC. 

JMU softball is having another strange season as dominant pitching and power from the offense ranks the Dukes first in the CAA. However, another aspect of the team’s success is often uncredited — the utilization of pinch runners.

“They’re big speed players. It’s been very, very important to have them, and they have been a key reason why we’ve won a lot of ball games,” Head Coach Loren LaPorte said. “They’ve been in so many situations where they actually won a ball game for us.”

Freshman outfielder Kelsey Brown, sophomore outfielder Michelle Sullivan and sophomore utility Sydney LaScola are often tasked with giving JMU a speed boost on the bases — whether it’s a stolen base or tagging up in a critical situation in a scoreless contest or one-run game. All three must constantly be ready because they can be called on at any time.

“It’s just really important to always be focused throughout the whole game,” Sullivan said. “I know it’s easy getting sidetracked or have your mind focused on other things, but just always knowing what the situation is and being prepared for whenever your name is called.”

All three have different pregame routines to help them get ready for when they’re called on, and they each participate in hitting and fielding drills. Brown’s routine involves sprinting and stretching — something her teammates make fun of her for because she’s constantly doing it. LaPorte said she doesn’t give them an advanced notice for when or who’s going to be asked to provide a spark — it depends on the game’s situation.

“Having that mindset where, okay, this is the situation where I can probably go in,” LaPorte said. “That’s the most exciting thing is that when I go to make the change, they have the helmets in their hands, and they’re literally right at the end of the fence. It’s awesome for a coach to have players that want to fill that role and want to want to score runs for your team.”

When their time comes during the game, they fit right into its speed and don’t need time to adjust. Once in the game and on the base path, their mentality only advances.

“I’m thinking I need to get 60 feet at a time,” LaScola said. “I’m always thinking one base ahead just so we can get going, get the momentum going to get me to come in to score. I’m just thinking one base at a time — one base a time and doing whatever I can to get there.”

Their presence on the base path can disrupt the game and swing the momentum in JMU’s favor, taking a base or moving from first to third. LaPorte acknowledges the importance of the three and that they’re a main reason why JMU has won so many games. She says Brown played a critical role in taking the first game against Virginia Tech as she came in and scored the tying run in the final inning, which led to Sullivan and LaScola scoring the go-ahead runs and securing a 3-1 victory.

“It’s a huge momentum swing when you have someone like that on the bases that can do a lot and aren’t just station to station and really play with instinct,” LaPorte said. “That’s what we try and tell the girls: run with instinct. You don’t have to look to me to make every decision because, by the time you looked to me, it’s too late.”

Sullivan, LaScola and Brown have all appeared in games this season and have 13 stolen bases out of 15 tries between them. 

While they’ve appeared in games as pinch runners, they’ve made an impact at the plate and on the field. Sullivan hit her first career home run in the 16-2 victory over Hofstra April 4. 

All three have viewed and handled the transition of entering mid-game differently. However, as the season has progressed, it has become second nature to them as they all share the same mentality; they must advance to the next base.

“It was definitely harder at the beginning of the season, just because I never knew when I was going to come in,” LaScola said. “Now that we’ve gone through a little bit of the season … Just knowing who’s up to bat, it’s easy for me to go in. I get my helmet ready to go because one of us is going to come in to run.”

Their teammates have helped the three push themselves to become better players. All of them have worked to become more effective base runners and all-around players. Their importance to the team extends beyond creating a spark on the bases — they can kick the momentum to JMU’s favor in the batter’s box or in the field.

“I look up to a lot of the girls on the team,” Brown said. “It’s easy to learn from them, being close and having that relationship with every player on the team. I’m learning stuff from pitchers and I’m learning stuff from other base runners; it’s not just my position who I’m learning from. It’s great to have people to look up to on the team, including the freshmen class, learning from them also.”

Contact Jason Clampitt at clampijt@dukes.jmu.edu. For more softball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.