In the UC San Diego softball record books, senior Nicole Saari will likely hold a place in the top five all-time for batting average and fielding percentage. She is the complete player, dangerous at the plate as a hitter and consistently strong defensively behind the plate as a catcher. The Tritons head off to Turlock, Calif., for the season-opening Best of the West Invitational this weekend and they've set high expectations for themselves in 2010. Before starting the long haul of a schedule that includes at least 53 games, Saari took a few minutes to talk about extending the season with a return to the playoffs, the free time she likes to spend behind the mic and the Tritons' new state-of-the-art softball facility set to see its first official game on Feb. 12.
Q: With the Best of the West Invitational marking the start of the 2010 softball season, what goals do you have in mind for yourself as a player and the team as a whole?
SAARI: Personally, I want this to be my best season so I can leave softball on a high note. I would love to be an All-American. I know this is an extremely high goal, but I have great expectations of myself and hopefully they will take defense into account for once! My goal for the team is to host the West Regional playoff tournament to show off our unbelievable new stadium, and after we win that, go to the national championships in Missouri.
Q: At the plate, you hit over .335 as a freshman, .178 in your second year and .301 as a junior. After the "sophomore slump," if you'd call it that, what kind of adjustments did you make between 2008 and 2009 to bring the bat back?
SAARI: Thanks for calling out my horrible season, which you can definitely call a slump! My sophomore year was the worst I have ever hit, starting with a shoulder injury, which is no excuse because I never dug myself out of it. The whole field just seemed like a giant glove! I think the major adjustment I made my junior year to get back on track was mental. I started the season fresh with a positive attitude, and the clean slate for batting average didn't hurt either! I stopped overthinking at the plate and guessing what pitches I was going to be thrown. Along with that, I just changed my stance a little and things just fell back into place.
Q: Your fielding percentage of .991 ranks second all-time at UCSD. Knowing the importance of the catcher position, can you talk a little bit about how you try to maintain a balance and consistency with your offensive and defensive skills?
SAARI: I feel that defense is more important for a catcher. If I slack off behind the plate, its really going to hurt the team because I am in every play both physically and mentally through pitch calling or directing where to throw the ball. If I am doing poor offensively, it isn't as detrimental because I have eigh other girls in the lineup I know can, and will, pick up the slack. It gets tough because hitting and running gets harder at the end of double headers as my legs get worn down, but I just have to be mentally tough and give everything I have into all of my swings.
Q: Both your parents graduated from Chico State, a California Collegiate Athletic Association school that you will challenge in this year's home opener. Is there any extra motivation when you play against the Wildcats?
SAARI: My older sister actually graduated from Chico State as well, so I'm the oddball in the family. I think there is some extra motivation for me because my family is extremely competitive. I want to prove that I not only go to a better academic university than them, but one with a superior athletic program. However, I think I've gotten my parents to come over from the dark side, seeing how they own more UC San Diego apparel than Chico State gear, and wear it proudly! I'm pretty sure my mom owns every imaginable article of clothing repping UCSD, and her new favorite colors are blue and gold!
Q: There are a couple of newcomers on this season's softball squad that play catcher. As a senior mentor to the freshmen, what's your best advice to a younger player trying to field that position?
SAARI: Ice your knees!! The position is so physically demanding. I remember the good old days freshman year staying injury free with fresh legs every day, making fun of the old lady senior catcher. Things soon changed sophomore year, so as the old lady, start preventative treatment early. Don't let the pitchers fool you, catchers have the most important position on the field (if they ever forget, jump out of the way of a pitch and ask how the umpire will call a strike when they are getting snipered). Catching can feel like a thankless job full of bruises, but that's where pickoffs come in! Oh, and it is the catcher's job to entertain coach to make sure she is in a good mood!
Q: The top returning pitchers are Camille Gaito, Tess Granath, Christine Zankich and Brittany Sheats. If you had to write a scouting report on each of them, what would you put in the "strengths" column?
SAARI: Camille has an awesome rise and curveball. She keeps batters off balance by mixing up her speeds. Tess learned a couple great offspeed pitches to add to a well-rounded repertoire and she distracts batters with her grunt. Christine keeps everything low with a great drop-curve, screwball, and drop. Brittany throws hard and the pitches I can always go to are her drop-curve, screwball, and change-up.
Q: Out of all the CCAA schools, what's your favorite travel destination?
SAARI: It's hard to choose because I love going to both Chico and San Francisco. I can get family and friends at the games to cheer me on and I visited both Chico and the city often growing up. I think I'm going to have to go with Chico though because we get to fly into my hometown airport in Sac, the team has stopped by my house for dinner once, and we get to eat Mr. Pickles sandwiches.
Q: Your bio online mentions that you have an interest in karaoke. What's your go-to song? If you're doing a duet, which teammate do you call on?
SAARI: I don't mind tooting my own horn on this one, I am kind of a karaoke superstar. It's one of my favorite things to do. It's hard to pick just one go-to song, but I think I'd have to go with Beyonce "Crazy in Love" because it always brings down the house (more because of my dance moves because I will admit I am lacking slightly on vocals). I am very well rounded, dabbling in older songs like Queen, rock songs like Guns N' Roses, and rap songs such as Run-DMC's "It's Tricky." My roommate Christine and I make a great duet, giving the audience six minutes of sheer performance genius to "Bohemian Rhapsody," giving Freddie Mercury himself a run for his money.
Q: If you had to elect one of your teammates for political office, who would you vote for?
SAARI: Well, I feel like I would be the obvious candidate for President. But I think our team manager, Sydney Shera, would be a perfect Vice President because she has a great head on her shoulders and could make all of the decisions for me while I spent my time on more important things, such as going to every sporting event (like Obama) or vacationing (Bush style). I would say that I want Sarah Woofter as my Secretary of Defense, but I don't think her background check would clear! And of course I would have Tess as my Swedish Ambassador because of her international experience.
Q: What are your plans for after graduation?
SAARI: After graduation I plan on becoming a millionaire. I'm not quite sure how or where I will do this yet, but those are just minor details. I would love to stay in San Diego and get into sports marketing, but these are tough times, so I am open to going wherever I can find a solid job.
Previous Q & A Articles