Wanting the ball

Speckman emerges as softball team’s ace, one of most dominant athletes on campus

By OWEN O'BRIEN
On April 8, 2014

  • Senior Tori Speckman has started over 46 percent of Buffalo’s games since her freshman year. She has 146 strikeouts in over 131 innings this season and has thrown complete games in 16 of her 21 starts. Yusong Shi, The Spectrum
  • “I’m literally going to dominate each batter,” Speckman said. “It’s something I work really hard for. Yusong Shi, The Spectrum

Khalil Mack. Javon McCrea.Tori Speckman.

Tori Speckman?

Anybody who even remotely follows University at Buffalo Athletics has certainly heard of the first two names listed above. Mack could be the No. 1 pick in May's NFL Draft and McCrea is being scouted by teams throughout the NBA as a potential draft pick or at least a training camp invitee.

They are two of the greatest athletes in the history of this school. But that doesn't necessarily mean they are the two most dominant athletes at UB.

Speckman, a senior, is the ace of the Buffalo softball team. She has started 21 of Buffalo's 31 games and has posted an 11-9 record with a 2.24 ERA. Speckman has 143 strikeouts in 131 1/3 innings and 16 complete games.

But even more than the numbers, it's her position that demonstrates dominance. Looking to avoid Mack? Triple-team him and let your offense operate on the other side of the field. Looking to stop McCrea? Put three defenders on him every time he touches the ball in the paint and force other players to score.

How do you contain a pitcher in softball? You can't.

The game doesn't begin until the pitcher throws the ball. Then the catcher throws it back and the at-bat doesn't resume until the pitcher throws it again. Speckman can't be avoided - unless she's in the dugout, which seldom occurs.

She has been one of the Bulls' most feared pitchers since stepping on campus. Speckman started 58 of Buffalo's 140 games (41 percent) over her first three seasons. Including this season, she has started 46 percent of the games since she's been in a Buffalo uniform.

She's been pitching the majority of her games since before she was 10 years old. When her 10-and-under team won nationals, Speckman pitched the final two games - which took place at 3 and 5 a.m., respectively, after beginning at 10 a.m. the day before.

When describing herself in one word, she opted for "domineering" after about 30 seconds of pondering.

"I'm literally going to dominate each batter," Speckman said. "It's something I work really hard for. Every game, I have the ball. And I plan to have the ball a lot."

***

Before you step into the batter's box, Speckman has already struck you out. Maybe not on the scorecard, but in her mind.

She attempts to keep her head clear and thoughts simple while warming up in the pregame. Once she steps on the mound, however, it's a different story.

"[I do] so much self talk, it's crazy," Speckman said. "I sound like a mental case."

She visualizes the entire at-bat - pitch by pitch - and how she plans to attack the hitter.

Speckman has already recorded at least eight strikeouts in nine games this season - which is more than one per inning.

"She knows her skills," said junior catcher Alexus Curtiss, who's caught for Speckman the majority of the past three seasons. "She knows that she's basically going to head on out there and take everybody down. That's her mindset."

This "self talk" has helped Speckman tremendously throughout the season, but it wasn't always this way. During her first few seasons, she referred to this process as "stress talk."

Rather than thinking about how she would strike a batter out, she thought about avoiding failure. Now, she visualizes success.

Speckman only operates at one speed on the mound - fast. If her catcher doesn't return the ball almost instantaneously, she will hold her glove out in anger and just wait.

"I am bossy and I'm very bossy on the mound, too, and it's bad," Speckman said. "They get so irritated with me when I do that."

She loves the competitive nature of pitching. It's like a constant one-on-one with a new batter throughout the game. It also allows her to remain in control.

"I love to be in control," Speckman said. "I'm a control freak, and I always tell people that's why I'm a pitcher - because I need to have the ball every pitch."

In the second game of the team's doubleheader against Florida A&M this season, Speckman went up to head coach Trena Peel and asked for the ball.

Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal. But Speckman had just come off a nine-inning, 11-strikeout performance in a 3-2 victory. A regulation softball game is only seven innings.

She thought to herself, I could totally pitch again. And when she told Peel, the coach gave her the ball.

"From a coaching standpoint, I love her competitiveness because that's something you can't teach," Peel said. "That's just kind of something you have. I wish I had her for four years and not just one because I think now she's just starting to peak in her career."

Speckman pitched another complete game and recorded eight strikeouts while only surrendering two unearned runs in Buffalo's 2-1 loss.

"I tell people I would rather pitch until my arm falls off than not be in the game," Speckman said.

With Peel as the coach, Speckman said she doesn't feel the need to ask for the ball often. She knows the game is hers, unless she tells Peel otherwise.

***

Speckman went into her game Saturday feeling "rusty" - she had a four-day break from games. Yet she did something only two other pitchers in Buffalo softball history had ever done:

She pitched a no-hitter.

Speckman wasn't even aware she was flirting with a no-hitter until the game was over. It's considered taboo to discuss a no-hitter on the bench, so none of her teammates mentioned anything. The pitcher, however, didn't find anything weird about the avoidance. She often keeps to herself between innings.

"To be honest, I kind of do that to myself in every game," Speckman said. "I don't like to get too involved and too amped up when we are hitting because I'll get too excited."

Her mind was preoccupied with fixing her mechanics to throw stronger pitches. She credited her defense - especially senior infielder Tori Pettine - for the no-hitter.

"Everyone else said they were thinking about it during the game, but I had no idea," Speckman said. "I was totally clueless."

Speckman also has these lapses off the field. She described herself as "kind of spacey," and Curtiss - who lives with Speckman - said she has plenty of stories about Speckman's forgetfulness.

Just a few weeks ago, the two had to return to Chipotle because Speckman left her bag there. Speckman leaves her bag and glove behind often and would "lose [her] head if it wasn't on [her] shoulders." Even when leaving an interview, Speckman had to run back because she forgot her wallet in the dugout.

Although this can create more stress for herself and others in her personal life, she believes it's a strength on the mound.

"I'm not going to lie, I feel like sometimes that helps me with my pitching because I'm able to just forget and move on," Speckman said. "I can forget anything, so I don't hold onto the negative too much because it's out of my mind - just like a lot of things are."

***

Young athletes often look to professionals for motivation. After all, their goal is to be like the pros one day. Another popular motivational selection is a parent or older sibling who introduced them to the game and drove them to succeed.

This isn't the scenario for Speckman. She wants to be like her younger sister Rebekah, who has no interest in playing softball.

Rebekah is four years younger than Speckman and suffers from a severe case of dyslexia. She had to change schools and deal with bullies and is currently being homeschooled. Speckman admires how Rebekah handles herself through the obstacles she experiences daily.

"She is so sweet and so loving to everyone, despite all the negative things she's been through," Speckman said. "And even though she is younger than me, I look up to her. I have to strive to be more like her."

When most people think of dyslexia, they think of the obstacles of reading words off a page, but Speckman spoke about how Rebekah can be at an airport terminal and unsure if she's reading the correct number.

Dyslexic people sometimes have lower self-esteem because they feel unintelligent, which isn't the case for Rebekah. Speckman believes dyslexia is extremely misunderstood.

"I always tell her that you can do anything," Speckman said. "It's not going to be easy, but you can do anything. Anybody can do anything they really set their mind to and I truly, truly, truly believe that."

***

Speckman, a Texas native, originally had no interest in playing at Buffalo.

She had been receiving emails from schools all over the country about college softball. Whenever an offer came from a school she didn't like, she would ignore it. She responded to Buffalo, however, saying the school was too far and too cold for her and didn't want to waste the program's time.

About a month later, she started to change her mind. She thought the idea of playing and living in New York would be cool and emailed the Bulls back without talking to her parents and set up a visit.

Speckman came for a visit during the first week of classes - before the weather dipped to freezing. Speckman instantly clicked with the girls on the team and knew she wanted to go to Buffalo.

Before this year, the pitcher had clashed with her previous coaches in Buffalo. Despite starting over 40 percent of games, she wanted the ball more often. She said she had even thought about leaving the team because she "wasn't sure of [her] role."

After at least 20 starts as both a freshman and sophomore, Speckman's starts decreased to 18 last season under former head coach Jennifer Teague. Speckman felt like she "had to fight" the coaching staff to get the ball.

Then the Bulls hired Peel this summer, and her hiring was the change Speckman needed. Peel came in with no preset notions. She offered everybody a shot, something Speckman said she and the team appreciated.

Speckman was motivated to have her best season - and one of the best in program history.

"I had so much experience and seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and I had kind of decided on what player I wanted to be, especially my senior year," Speckman said. "And the chance to come in and really show these coaches what I was about, what I could bring to the team."

Peel changed the team's attitude immediately. She brought in an aura of confidence. She preached "swagger," which is currently on the back of their practice shirts. She embraced Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson's simple words before the big game: "Why not us?"

"They want you to show off," Speckman said. "They want you to be that cocky player, and I am that kind of person who thinks that's what makes it fun."

When Peel was hired, Speckman knew it was a fresh start. She was playing for a coach who had a winning history, and Speckman could prove to Peel why she deserved the ball.

Speckman and the entire team are fighting for the same goal - a Mid-American Conference Championship.

The Bulls had more losses in MAC play alone (44) than total wins overall (42) from 2011-13. Though they considered transferring during the first three seasons, Speckman and fellow seniors Sammi Gallardo, Holly Luciano, Heather Ryder and Tori Pettine never left.

They believed their class could do something special.

"Every year, I'm like, 'We are one year closer, don't any of you leave me now,'" Speckman said.

The Bulls already have 16 wins this season - equal to the team's most since Speckman came to Buffalo.

"Once you have that bad taste, it makes everything so much sweeter now that it is good," Speckman said.

***

The team's confidence in Speckman is just as strong as her confidence in herself. When she steps on the mound, the Bulls know they always have a good chance to win.

Speckman and Luciano wear 21 and 12, respectively. The two say the opposite numbers represent how they "have each other's back." If Speckman struggles, she will turn toward her centerfielder, who gives a look to remind her the team is behind her.

"The words can't even explain the different Tori that's out there this year compared to what it was freshman year," Luciano said. "She is just on a roll and she's going to lead this team to MACs."

Speckman's personal goal for the season is to be an All-MAC first-team selection. Her no-hitter came in her first conference start of the season, but it's not satisfying enough - she wants another and believes she can get one.

She wants the ball every game. She's determined to do all she can in her final college season.

"I think her wanting the ball all the time is her wanting to go out her senior year with a bang," Peel said. "She doesn't want to be the one on the sideline watching someone else. Whether we win or lose, she wants to be that one in the circle."

It's a safe bet that Speckman will be throwing the Bulls' final pitch this season. It may not be at 5 a.m., but it could be later in the year than any Buffalo softball pitcher has experienced in a long time.

 

email: sports@ubspectrum.com


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