Nicole Cring’s success on the softball diamond was obvious to everyone who watched her play this past spring.
What most people didn’t see was the secret to her success. That’s because most people aren’t up at 5:30 a.m.
“The hardest thing was getting up at 5:30 in the morning, getting up to pitch so that I could get it in before school and get in it before basketball practice,” recent Cooperstown graduate Cring said of her off-season routine, which included roughly four morning practices per week in nearby Hartwick with her pitching coach, Tom Weeks.
“I guess there have been times where I would have rather slept in,” she continued. “But I always wanted to get better.”
Cring set single-season school records in 2012 with 15 wins and 216 strikeouts. She broke both marks in her senior season this past spring, finishing with 20 victories and 232 strikeouts. Cring also had a 0.62 earned run average last season, which contributed to her all-time school-record ERA of 1.24.
“I’ve been throwing since the end of sixth grade,” Cring said. “I’ve gone to about 10 different coaches to learn new mechanics and apply them to my pitching. I have learned something from every one of them. It wasn’t a quick process. Each time I learned new mechanics, it tended to mess up my other pitches and I had to re-learn them, too. Sometimes it was four steps back to take another two steps forward.”
Cring’s efforts also resulted in 2013 Player of the Year honors from The Daily Star, marking the first time the award has been given to a Cooperstown softball player.
Indeed, 2013 was a season of firsts for Cooperstown.
Cring led the program to its first league title as Cooperstown went 12-0 in Division III of the Center State Conference.
Cooperstown also beat rival Hamilton for the first time — or at least the first time anyone in the program can remember — en route to a sweep of the Emerald Knights last spring. That led to the first undefeated regular season in program history as Cooperstown entered the postseason with an 18-0 record.
Other 2013 highlights included Cring’s perfect game April 26 against Morrisville-Eaton, which is believed to be the first in program history, and a 2-1 victory over Herkimer in the Section Three Class C-1 championship game May 30.
Cring also had a shining moment in the overall Section Three Class C final, hitting a grand slam in a 6-4 loss to C-2 champion Sandy Creek on June 1 at Le Moyne College.
While her pitching statistics were among the best in the area, what Cring did at the plate put her in a class all by herself. Cring batted .451 with eight home runs, six triples, four doubles, 35 RBIs and 23 runs. Cring, who set single-season records for batting average and triples, also had a slugging percentage of 1.014.
Cring attributed her improvement at the plate to playing the past two summer softball seasons with the T-C Tremors, a travel team that includes Daily Star First Team All-Star pitcher Brieanna Baker of Oneonta High on its roster.
“That was all because of Sunday practice,” she said. “We would have these three-hour-long hitting practices. We had a really good hitting coach come in, Rob Crews. He taught me so many things. I think the most important thing was he taught me to sit back and relax at the plate ... just how to breathe and relax into my swing.”
Cooperstown coach Dave Bliss said his team will miss everything about Cring next season.
“We’re going to miss her in the circle and we’re going to miss her at the plate,” Bliss said. “We’re going to miss her leadership and her work ethic. She has really shown the other girls how to work hard.”
Cring used five pitches — a curveball, a drop curveball, a sinker, a screwball and a fastball — to dominate most of Cooperstown’s opponents. Bliss said her fastball, which hit 60-plus miles per hour, was the best of the lot.
“Obviously that was her top pitch,” Bliss said, “but she was able to mix it up so you couldn’t time her fastball. She threw lots of strikes and not many balls. She didn’t walk a lot of people.”
Cring, who walked 26 during her senior season (1.24 per game), credited part of her success to 2011 graduate Anna Sams, who amassed 45 victories in four seasons as Cooperstown’s starting pitcher.
“I was always trying to push myself more because I wanted to prove to myself I could be as good as her,” Cring said of Sams, whose program record of 45 all-time wins is 10 higher than Cring’s overall mark. “My sophomore year, I wanted to show the coaches I could pitch some of the innings and do as well as her.”
Although Sams started two more seasons in the circle, she never threw as many games nor innings in one season as Cring did over each of the past two. Cring went 20-1 this past season, pitching 146 innings. Her backup, Ellen Vibbard, appeared in two games and threw a total of eight innings.
Cring said she’ll major in health and physical education at Springfield College this fall. She also said she hopes to continue to play softball, but she’ll have to make the team first.
“Everybody tries out every year,” she said. “Even the seniors have to try out for the team. It is a little nerve-racking since I am still not sure I will be playing. My roommate for college is a catcher, so I’ll be able to get a lot of practice in.”
That shouldn’t be much of an adjustment for Cring, who also helped Cooperstown to the Section Three Class C championship in girls basketball last winter. Still, nothing beats the season Cooperstown had in softball, Cring said.
“I can definitely say I will look back and feel good about all those wins,” she said. “Even after the Sandy Creek game, I felt amazing about what we had accomplished and how we came back against them. Knowing that I was part of the team that won its first banner and got farther than any team in school history ... those were the goals we set at the beginning of the season. To know we accomplished them, that is — by far — definitely going to be one of my favorite memories.”
Afton had a memorable season as well, returning to the top of the Section Four Class D ranks for the first time in two seasons.
The Crimson Knights went all the way to the Class D state championship game under 26th-year coach Cindy Bostelman, who earned Daily Star Coach of the Year accolades for the 13th time since 1995.
Bostelman led Afton to a 22-2 season that ended with a 5-2 state-championship loss to Fort Ann, which finished 2013 with a 25-0 record.
“You can’t hang your head,” seven-time state champion Bostelman said after the season-ending loss. “How many other teams are wearing silver around their necks? We would have liked it to be gold, but they’re hungry and have a desire to come back.”
Afton’s run included a a 1-0 state-semifinal defeat of Hamilton, a 3-1 victory over Hancock in the Midstate Athletic Conference championship game, and a 2-1 win over Deposit in the Section Four title game. The Crimson Knights avenged back-to-back losses in the sectional final to the Lumberjacks, who interrupted Afton’s Section Four-record streak of 16 in a row with a 6-5 win in 2011.