Jefferson P. Nolan
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With two outs in the top of the 7th inning, Sierra Hyland stares down the Cal State Northridge pinch hitter digging into the batter’s box.
Cal Poly first baseman Breana West scans the infield, trying to read the faces of her teammates. Nobody else seems to notice the row of 0’s lining the scoreboard at Bob Janssen Field.
From the pitcher’s mound, Hyland pivots and looks quickly at the numbers on the center fielder’s jersey. She shoots a quick glance around the infield and steps forward — putting her left foot on the mound, then her right.
Hyland has the same routine before every pitch.
She looks down at her cleats and takes a calm, steady breath before she throws to the plate.
The dull crack of the ball meeting metal shatters the silence.
For Hyland, it’s no more than a routine grounder to first base, but West knows she has to be especially careful in fielding this one.
The coaches leap from the dugout. Her teammates rush to the mound.
“‘Do you not realize what you did?’” Cal Poly pitching coach Chelsey Barclay says to Hyland.
Until the team mobbed to the mound, the freshman pitcher had no idea that she just threw a perfect game.
Bewildered, Hyland looks at her coach, processing the moment as best she could.
“I just looked at her,” Hyland recalled. “I just looked at her and said, ‘Oh!’”
Playing on a team that emphasizes doing the little things correctly, Hyland epitomizes the mindset of taking one pitch at a time.
“For me, I’m so into the game that I don’t realize it until after the game is over and everybody is congratulating me,” she said.
In her first year in a Cal Poly uniform, Hyland has captured national attention as she ranks sixth nationally in strikeouts (196), ninth in victories (18), 10th in shutouts (7) and 40th in ERA (1.57).
And just as unbelievable, her hitting statistics are almost as impressive. Hyland is batting .367 this season with four home runs and a team-leading 25 RBIs.
While many athletes struggle with the transition from high school to collegiate competition, the pressure isn’t anything new for the softball star.
In high school, Hyland was burdened as the team’s lone pitcher. In her four years at El Diamante High School in Visalia, Calif., Hyland posted a 1.20 ERA in 747.1 innings pitched. She recorded 101 wins in her high school career with 959 strikeouts, 258 walks and 51 shutouts, and she allowed only two extra-base hits in all four years.
But head coach Jenny Condon was not the one who contacted Hyland. When the four-time All-West Yosemite League Player of the Year told the Mustangs’ manager she wanted to play for her, Condon was caught by surprise.
“She was actually interested in us before we knew a lot about her,” Condon said. “But once we saw her, we knew we wanted her to be a part of this team.”
What made it more unusual was that during the Mustangs’ 2013 campaign, Condon’s club finished second to last in the Big West standings after recording a disappointing 19-34-1 record — not something that stands out to top-notch recruits.
Cal Poly was the obvious choice, Hyland felt, but originally, it wasn’t for softball.
It was for shells.
Hyland grew up vacationing in Shell and Pismo Beach, collecting seashells off the picturesque Central Coast waters. San Luis Obispo’s laid-back vibe and its proximity to the beach meant something special to Hyland.
“I’ve been going to Shell Beach and Pismo ever since I was little,” she said. “Shell Beach is one of my favorite places to go because I like to look for shells and relax and chill on the rocks. It’s more mellow, and it fits me.”
Perhaps Hyland’s mental acuity can be attributed to the shells she collects or the portraits she draws in her free time — drawings of Madonna and Beyoncé drape the walls of her residence hall room.
In any case, her success in the circle is generated from not thinking too much when she’s on the field.
“What I love about her is that she just throws,” Barclay said. “It’s hard sometimes to turn off your thought process. That’s where I think she’s so great. She just throws; she doesn’t overthink anything.”
This season — in a movement led by Hyland and the five other freshmen new to the team — the Cal Poly softball team has undergone a paradigm shift in almost every aspect of the game.
“Our freshmen came in and they brought a competitive attitude and put the pressure on the seniors,” Condon said. “All 17 of our kids have been competing in practice in every aspect of the game. And they believe. They have this attitude now that they will never quit until the last out is made.”
Senior second baseman Ashley Romano has seen the transition the team has made over the past few seasons, and she looks up to Hyland for instilling the team-oriented attitude.
“She’s very humble,” Romano said. “Sometimes I think she’s keeping it a little too simple. But I think that’s why she does so well. When she pitches or hits, she takes it just one pitch at a time. I’m sad to leave because I’d like to stay and watch her grow.”
At 19, the 1-0 victory on March 29 wasn’t Hyland’s first perfect game, and it might not be her last. When she was just a toddler, Hyland’s parents brought her to Plaza Park in Visalia and dressed her in a red baseball dress to watch her dad play slow-pitch softball. Ever since, the young competitor has displayed the poise of an athlete who has seen success before, and she is accustomed to being on the winning side of the game.
And as the Mustangs battle for a conference title, the goal is in sight. For Hyland it is clear as day — like her mindset on the mound.
“We’re just going to come out strong, do what we do, and make some outs,” Hyland said. “We’re ready to win a conference championship.”