A year off from a sport can provide many things for an athlete.
Mental and physical recovery.
For Castleton University softball team’s third baseman Sara Baker, returning to the program for her senior year is an exciting time for both her and the Spartans, after a wake-up call from her advisor helped her set her priorities straight.
“It was the end of sophomore year where I sat down with my advisor and she was like, ‘look, these are your grades, they aren’t where they need to be. You really need to figure out what means more to you and how you’re gonna go about next year,’” Baker said.
In the life of a collegiate student-athlete, Baker says the commitment is more than just showing up and producing on game day.
“It’s not just going to games and going to practices, it’s like all the other stuff that’s involved with softball,” she said. “We do a lot of fundraising, a lot of outside time that for me, I’d be happy to spend time doing that stuff, but I can’t focus on doing the extra work that I need to do for nursing. It’s just something I needed to do to feel confident in the degree.”
After returning from summer vacation, Baker decided to tell coach Eric Ramey she would be taking a year off from the team to focus on her education. A conversation that was understandable yet frustrating for Ramey who missed crucial parts of her game.
“Her consistency, her ability and her experience,” Ramey said. “I’ll say I was frustrated. I’ve always respected Sara, it didn’t change my perspective on her as a person. It was frustrating because we didn’t find out until she got back to school, so it had an impact on how we recruited that summer.”
In Baker’s first two years at Castleton, she recorded 67 hits, 47 RBIs, 18 doubles, three triples and six home runs for the Spartans, all while maintaining a .354 batting average.
Coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Ramey is psyched to have Baker back in the lineup.
“Sara returning to us this year really lengthens our lineup from an offensive perspective,” Ramey said. “Her ability to hit the ball with authority every time she steps in the box, drive in runs, start an inning for us. She just strengthens us up and down, and makes us that much tougher to get through, it’s not a secret.”
Baker has been electric for Castleton in the first 10 games of the season, which were spent in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Leading the team in batting average (.555) with five RBIs, five walks, two doubles and a triple, Baker’s vision at the plate has been crucial to the Spartans red-hot 8-2 overall start (four wins come against community colleges, therefore do not count in season totals).
“When I got down there, I was definitely nervous. I kinda felt like I needed to prove to myself that I can still play,” Baker said. “It started off a little shaky, but once I saw some pitching and started getting hits, my confidence really went up.”
For such a young team, Baker’s leadership on and off the field is much needed.
The only other senior for the Spartans, Calli Van Gorden, made the point clear that Baker’s return to the team is greatly appreciated.
“The team knows that last year, essentially, she had to choose between softball and her life-long career of nursing, so she used the year off to her advantage and she excelled in nursing and we are so proud of her for that,” Van Gorden said. “Some things are just bigger than the game and that’s a concept the team understands well and having her back is having a member of the family back. It’s huge for the freshmen to see what a good player and friend is like and huge for the returners because it’s like the puzzle pieces fitting again.”
Ramey is excited for Baker to bring her solid bat back to an already dominant team of sluggers and dynamic pitchers.
“We can put out a pretty good lineup out there from an offensive side of things, but we can also tighten things up defensively and allow our pitchers to be comfortable letting the ball get hit,” Ramey said. “I think every time Sara comes to the plate, we know we have an opportunity to do something positive for our team.”
Baker’s time off from softball was spent helping others and bettering her future.
Majoring in nursing and from Schuylerville, New York, Baker, along with three other Castleton nursing students, had the opportunity to serve on a mission trip in Guatemala, providing free check-ups and first-aid to locals.
“The mission was during the spring and during softball season, but I knew it was something that I really wanted to be a part of,” she said. “We went to Guatemala for a week and set up a clinic to provide free healthcare, and it was an amazing experience that I would have regretted missing out on.”
Now on track for graduation in May and considering graduate school, Baker looks to finish her final season of softball out strong with a well-rounded team.
“I think this year is gonna be really successful, just because we bat nine players and all nine players can hit the ball, whereas before I felt like on our team, we would look up to three or four girls to be the ones to be successful at the plate. Now it’s like our whole lineup going down, you’re very confident in everyone who’s up there,” Baker said.
The Spartans return to action in a doubleheader against RPI for its home opener on March 25 at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.