Queen of the Hill

After a breakout 2006 season, Mandy Hill was not content to revel in her team’s first-ever NCAA Division I regional tournament appearance and enjoy her summer break.

After a breakout 2006 season, Mandy Hill was not content to revel in her team’s first-ever NCAA Division I regional tournament appearance and enjoy her summer break. Instead of backpacking Europe or road tripping across the U.S. last summer, Portland State’s pitching ace and clean-up hitter came ready for the 2007 season with a new strikeout pitch and an understanding that it would be up to her to lead her young team back to a conference championship.

“The pitcher is supposed to be your leader,” Hill said. “It kind of just fell into my hands.”

Things have been falling into place for Hill for a long time, ever since her father used to toss balls to her when she was little and realized that she could really hit. Hill competed in her first t-ball league when she was five years old before earning four varsity letters in softball at Battleground High School.

The only bump in the road came when despite being named a first-team, all-region pitcher her senior year, few colleges came knocking for Hill’s services at the next level.

Big mistake.

Former PSU head coach Teri Mariani eagerly snatched the two-way player, though in 2005 she showed comparatively few tantalizing glimmers of the potential she would soon unleash on the unsuspecting Pacific Coast Softball Conference (PCSC). In 18 appearances in the circle, Hill went 5-5 with a 3.00 ERA. She also batted .212 with four homers and 15 RBIs.

Her numbers in 2006 are, quite simply, staggering for a sophomore no one else wanted. Hill dominated batters, posting a 24-7 record with 170 strikeouts and a razor-thin 1.97 ERA in 227 innings. In the batter’s box, Hill punished opposing pitching staffs, hitting .322 with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs.

Second-year head coach Amy Hayes said the first time she knew Hill was something special came last February, when Hill started all five games of the Louisville Slugger Desert Classic and came through with a 4-0 record and 1.47 ERA.

“When we played and beat Purdue, that whole Vegas tourney was when we knew we had a great player,” Hayes said.

Portland State assistant coach Jennie Shollenberger spent last year on the field as the Vikings’ starting catcher.

“She has that work ethic. We just clicked well,” Shollenberger said. When Hill struggled last year, Shollenberger had the responsibility of calming the young star down.

“Usually I just made her laugh and brought her down a notch,” she said, adding that Hill relied predominately on the riseball, which Hill can throw at two speeds, to strike batters out.

However, this summer Hill and her dad worked on a new pitch, a curveball that has now become her go-to pitch in tough situations.

“The curveball, outside is my new pitch,” Hill said. “Over the summer my dad thought of a curveball and it works.”

Adding a new pitch to her arsenal has helped Hill deal with the increased workload she’s seen in 2007. Hill has already pitched 219 innings on her way to a 16-15 record with 163 Ks. And unlike last year when the Vikings also had reliable senior Michelle Hext, she has been asked to carry most of the load on her own.

“Last year was my standout year. Me and Michelle just meshed so well,” Hill said. “The one thing I really didn’t like [this year] was there was no one to come in and give me a breather.”

The situation is better now that the Vikings have Janice Damo, who came highly recruited out of Moraga, Calif. But the freshman is 0-6 on the year, leaving much of the pressure squarely on Hill’s shoulders. She’s handling it well, having earned two of the last four PCSC Player of the Week awards.

“I never really felt like all the pressure was on me,” Hill said. “A lot of the girls are really mature, so it doesn’t feel like a younger team. Someone has to step up to be a leader. Kimi can’t do it all.”

Kimi Daniel is the Vikings sole senior on the 2007 squad and an everyday player in the outfield. Of the 15 players on the team, Daniel, Hill and infielder Stephanie Bean are the only upperclassmen. Whether or not Hill is feeling the pressure to produce and lead, it’s there.

Hill has continued to produce at the plate, and though she is hitting only .242, she leads the team with 10 homers and 31 RBIs in 42 games. But Hill lives for the chance to enter the circle and leave batters flabbergasted as they go down.

“With pitching I get to face at least 21 batters a game,” Hill said. “I don’t really think about the pressure-bases loaded, no outs, whatever.”

It is that confidence that quickly won over Hayes, who calls Hill one of the mentally toughest players on the team.

“She’s a kid who wants the ball,” Hayes said. “Stepping in, putting the load on her shoulders, it’s a role she relishes. She’ll come up with a big hit or the big strikeout. She’s done a great job.”

Last year, PSU made history by earning their first-ever Division I regional tourney berth.

While they aren’t quite the same dominant team from last year, the Vikings want back in and know that any chance they have goes through Hill.

Hill’s two wins over Sacramento State last week made it clear that she is the one to ride to the tournament. The Hornets almost denied PSU their spot in the NCAA tourney last year by sweeping them late in the season. Hill’s victories were sweet revenge.

“Coming out with two wins was amazing,” Hill said, before revealing a telling sign that she is becoming the team’s leader despite her own reservations. “A lot of girls think we just need to win conference. We need to show up like we’re playing Sac State every game.”