It's amazing what a little confidence can do for an athlete.
Just ask former Salem star Katie Bettencourt, whose confidence was shaken last year as a freshman on the UMass Amherst softball team.
A fierce competitor who loves the game, Bettencourt was not accustomed to sitting on the bench, something she did plenty of a year ago. It wasn't until the end of the season that she saw any action, and even then it was mostly as a pinch-hitter.
In all, Bettencourt got up to the plate only seven times, coming away with just one hit.
"It was frustrating not being able to play, not even stepping on the field," said Bettencourt. "I'd always rather have my team win, but last year was tough.
"It was hard being a pinch-hitter. There's a lot of pressure. If you don't do well, you go right back to the bench and think about it instead of going on the field."
Part of the problem as a freshman was that, like most UMass rookies under veteran coach Elaine Sortino (1,058-441-5 in 30 years), Bettencourt had to learn an entire new way of hitting — not easy when you've had success hitting your entire life.
"My swing is completely different now," said Bettencourt. "It took a lot of getting used to. I started getting it last year, but I didn't feel completely comfortable until this year. After double sessions (in January), it clicked and I felt 10 times better."
Still, based on last year, Bettencourt wasn't taking anything for granted and she was not exactly oozing with confidence as the season started.
"I wasn't sure how it would work out ... I wasn't even sure I would be starting," she said.
But, Bettencourt was inserted into the opening-day lineup and responded by going 2 for 3. In her second game, she hit her first collegiate home run, a blast over the left-center field fence. Suddenly, her confidence was restored.
"That home run did a lot for me," said Bettencourt. "I started thinking, 'wow, I can hit at this level,' and I've gotten more confident every game."
Bettencourt's production has reflected that growing confidence. After 22 games, she's hitting .339, which is third best on the team, and has become a key part of the UMass batting order. Although she's been used in several spots, she has been used primarily in the pivotal third spot.
A catcher and center fielder at Salem, Bettencourt seems to have settled in as the team's right fielder, although she did play some left field in the fall.
"Things could happen where I'd play a different position, but I like right field and I feel like I know the position pretty well," said Bettencourt, who has a fielding percentage of 1,000. "I'm just happy I'm playing and contributing."
And happy she's regained her confidence.
Back in the hunt
There was some concern that UMass, which was 41-10 last year and has won the league title 14 of the last 15 years, might slip a bit with the graduation of Atlantic 10 Pitcher of the Year Brandice Balschmiter and star third baseman Whitney Mollica, the former Salem High standout and also an all-conference player, but it's not happening.
UMass just returned from a weekend trip to San Diego, where it went 4-3 against some of the best teams in the country, raising its record to 15-7.
"We lost some great players, but we have a lot of depth and the younger players have really stepped up," said Bettencourt, who struggled a bit on the west coast. "We still play UMass softball."
Moreover, UMass is expecting another fine bunch of recruits to join them next year, including Concord, N.H., pitcher Paige Hansen and North Andover catcher Candace Waldie.
Of the seven recruits signed in the fall, Sortino was particularly high on Waldie.
"Candace is probably the most versatile player in this class," Sortino said. "She brings speed, power, and she can play anywhere besides pitcher. She catches, she can be a middle infielder, and outfielder."
Mollica helping out
When Bettencourt was a freshman, she could always go to former Salem teammate Mollica for advice. As it turns out, she can still do that.
Mollica has remained with the program as "Director of Softball Operations" and is also an academic counselor with the athletic department.
Bettencourt's start (22 games)
Average — .339 (third on team)
Hits — 21 (second on team)
Runs — 10 (third on team)
Fielding — 1,000%