LSU-bound softball pitcher notches 43rd career no-hitter

Published 11:36 pm Saturday, May 9, 2009

MONROE, Conn. (AP) — Rachele Fico’s 23rd perfect game for Masuk High School wasn’t her best.

The LSU-bound senior only struck out 20 of the 21 batters she faced Wednesday, giving up a soft grounder to second base for the game’s penultimate out. The other team erupted into applause over one of their players just putting the ball in play.

‘‘For four years they’ve been cheering for foul tips,’’ said Masuk coach Jacqui Sheftz. ‘‘To the other teams’ credit, they are coming out here and taking their cuts … but Rachel right now is at the top of her game.’’

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The 11-0 victory was Fico’s 43rd no-hitter, fourth consecutive perfect game, and seventh this season. She has a career ERA of .006.

Fico (90-2 career) pitched another no-hitter on Thursday as Masuk won 10-0, but her streak of perfect games ended when she walked a batter. Through 11 games this year, she has given up just two hits and two walks.

‘‘She’s throwing in Connecticut, which isn’t exactly known as the national hotbed of softball,’’ said LSU coach Yvette Girouard. ‘‘But I don’t care what level you’re participating in, the mark she’s setting — you just kind of shake your head and scratch it. It’s just an unbelievable feat what she’s doing right now.’’

It’s also unprecedented. Marissa Marzan held the previous record for perfect games, pitching 20 for Bullard High School in Fresno, Calif., between 1998-2001, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Fico, who goes by Ray, said she’s been working at her game since she was 5 years old, playing coed T-ball in her hometown of Oxford.

‘‘I remember crying,’’ she said. ‘‘I didn’t want to play.’’

But she discovered she was good at it, and when she was 9, she switched to softball.

‘‘I would just go outside and pitch in my backyard,’’ she said. ‘‘When I was younger, I practiced like six or seven days a week.’’

Her father, Ralph, said Fico would constantly ask him to play catch. He eventually put a batting cage and a pitching machine in the yard. By the time she was in middle school, she was throwing the ball 57 mph. She also threw about 30,000 pitches a year.

‘‘I’m not kidding,’’ he said. ‘‘We counted them. It was 100 pitches a day.’’

Ralph Fico decided to get his daughter some professional help, and eventually found Jen Hapanowicz, a former University of Rhode Island pitcher who runs a training center in Durham, Conn.

Since then, Fico has played for a variety of elite national teams, helping the Gold Coast Hurricanes of Florida to an 18-and-under Amateur Softball Association national championship last summer.

‘‘She has a fire inside and a drive,’’ said Ralph Fico. ‘‘This record thing, I don’t want to say it bothers me, but it’s not something she was looking to set. She just wants to win.’’

Rachele said she actually likes hitting more than pitching. On Wednesday, she was 4 for 4, including a double and a home run. But she pitches right-handed and bats left, exposing her throwing arm to the mound when she bats. So in college, she’s likely to stick to the pitching circle.

She throws a curve ball, a change-up, a drop-curve, a screwball, a riser and something called a screw-rise, often topping 70 mph.

Sheftz, who was a catcher in college, said she’s never seen anyone with Fico’s combination of control, power and movement. What’s it like to catch her?

‘‘It hurts,’’ she said.

Playing for her summer league teams, Fico has pitched against competition from Japan, Venezuela and Taipei. She even threw an inning against the U.S. Olympic team, giving up five earned runs on four hits, with a walk.

Fico is quick to credit her teammates for her perfect games, noting that they sometimes have to wait several games to get a single chance at a ball in the field, but are always ready.

She said she ‘‘dreams big’’ about the future, but wants to concentrate now on helping Masuk to a third consecutive state title. In college, she plans to study special education and just enjoy being a part of the LSU softball team.

Girouard said the feeling is mutual.

‘‘We don’t want to put any undue expectations on her,’’ she said. ‘‘But let’s just say everyone in Baton Rouge is salivating for her arrival.’’