That little lap that Estela Piñon does around the pitcher’s circle is like The Road to Perdition and The Green Mile all rolled into one.
On that short little stroll, she finds her redemption, her salvation.
It’s where she finds herself, her inner Estela, and where she’ll discover herself again on Friday at 8 p.m. against Boston University in No. 11-seeded Arizona’s first game of the NCAA softball regionals.
On that walk, the worries of the world, the weight on her shoulders, drip off.
Right now, it’s a big weight.
Not that you’ll be able to see it; the Sunnyside High school graduate won’t let you.
“She’s a quiet competitor,” UA coach Mike Candrea said. “Inside she may be boiling, but outside she looks cool, calm and collected.”
It hasn’t always been this way.
Piñon came to the UA by way of Yavapai Junior College, where she starred as a freshman for then-Roughriders head coach and current Wildcats assistant Stacy Iveson. In the first game of the 2011 regional playoffs, Arizona Western College dropped six runs on Piñon and put Yavapai in a precarious spot. Win three straight or go home.
Iveson told Piñon that the ball was going right back to her. The strategy worked, and Yavapai went on to win the NJCAA national title.
“I was worried about her. We really needed her to step up and put us on her shoulders,” Iveson said. “The next morning I said, ‘We need you.’ I didn’t want to make it bigger than it was, but she knew we needed her. And it was like, she just flipped the switch.”
That’s when Piñon — who went 17-7 this season with a 2.54 ERA for Arizona — started her little strolls, her “me” time, her escapes.
In the span of a game, she learned to shake away the pressure, to breathe, in and out, in and out, to take stock of the situation.
She learned to recall what her father told her when she was a young pitcher, trying to attack every pitch. She stalked the batter, with heavy feet, stomping back to the pitcher’s mound, you ready to go?
“When you go to pitch, that’s when they come up,” her father told her then. “That’s when the game gets going. You slow down the game.”
She’ll need to maintain that mantra this weekend, first against the Terriers on Friday, and then against LSU or Louisville on Saturday. All three opponents present stout tests, with each squad fielding a lineup that is hitting better than .300.
Piñon will try to pitch the Cats to a super regional and bounce back from a regular- season-ending rough-up from top-ranked Oregon, which stunned her for four runs and three hits in just one-third of an inning Saturday, a day after Piñon and UA clipped the Ducks 11-8.
By Saturday, Piñon was exhausted after throwing 239 pitches the previous two days. Such is the life of the Arizona ace now, particularly in light of the news that senior Kenzie Fowler would be lost for the season.
“Up until Washington, I felt like Kenzie was getting there,” Candrea said. “It was just kind of all of a sudden. It just recently hit us. (Estela) could see the writing on the wall. But it’s something where I don’t want to put any more pressure on her than there already is. She knows we’re going to need a big effort out of her.”
Piñon understands, and she said she is at her best under pressure.
She’s been there before this season, and excelled.
On Feb. 15, she held then-No. 4 Alabama — which enters the college softball playoffs as the No. 2 seed — to five base runners and zero runs in five innings while striking out nine.
“The thing that turned my head and made me believe was against Alabama,” Iveson said. “The beginning of year, our first huge outing, and she completely answered the call against the No. 4-ranked team.”
Then, like she does now, she was able to, as Iveson said, “flush things that aren’t healthy for her mentally.”
Piñon does it on that brief little walk around the pitcher’s circle, which she’s been doing for three seasons now.
“I remember my freshman year, the regional (with Yavapai), and they killed me,” she said with a laugh. “Just killed me. Next day, coach says, ‘You’re starting against them again,’ and I was like, ‘What?! They just killed me yesterday!
“But I came back and flipped a switch. From there on, I killed everyone, and I thought, ‘This is not happening again.”