April 16, 2002
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. –
All-American pitcher Leslie Malerich is in the midst of completing a record-breaking career at Florida State University. The senior from Merrillville, IN will finish her four years at FSU as the all-time greatest pitcher in program history in at least three statistical categories. She is the only pitcher in FSU’s 24 years of softball that appears at the top of three different categories and she is the only pitcher to ever compile three 20+-win seasons.
This season, Malerich has become FSU’s All-Time leader in appearances, innings pitched and wins. Before the season started, she only appeared amongst the top five in one of those three categories. She moved into first on the innings pitched list out in Fullerton, CA and she has now pitched 870 innings in her career. In her 2-1 win over FAMU March 28, Malerich notched win 91 of her career and with 93 career victories, she is now just seven victories away from the century mark. If she is able to reach 100 career wins, Malerich will become just the 24th player in NCAA history to reach that mark.
But don’t be fooled, right now none of that means a thing to the pitcher. When she came to FSU four years ago she couldn’t even imagine enjoying the success she has experienced or even setting any goals for herself.
“I don’t think I really set any goals as a freshman,” remembers Malerich. “I was just so in awe that I was pitching for a major Division I university. I couldn’t believe I was here and I was in such awe that I didn’t even think about goals. I didn’t know what to expect and I just wanted to get a feel for things.”
Malerich hardly had a chance to get a feel for things before an injury to senior Stacey Venable at the start of the 1999 campaign forced her into action immediately. She got starts against top 25 teams in No. 3 DePaul, No. 20 Nebraska and No. 22 Minnesota and ended up making 32 appearances and posting an 11-8 record with a 2.02 ERA. It was a solid campaign for the freshman but it hardly felt that way to Malerich.
“I wanted to do better than I did but I learned so much,” said Malerich. “I was able to gain a lot of experience due to Stacey’s (Venable) injury.
“I always reflect back on my freshman season and a conversation I had with Campo (Craig Campanozzi), our head of video. I would talk to him about how I felt I was struggling in my first season and he told me to look at what happened to former Seminole star Toni Gutierrez. She struggled her freshman season and went on to be one of the best players in this program’s history. She became a role model for me but I never felt that the success she had would happen to me.”
Malerich’s 93 wins are the most in FSU softball history.
Being a pitcher means you have to be confident and that is something Malerich says she struggled with during her freshman season and throughout her career. If she doesn’t feel like she can get any batter she faces out, then she will struggle on the mound. The pitcher’s circle can be a lonely place when you don’t have that confidence.
“I think we all go through up and downs in our careers,” said Malerich.” I always tried to have the mindset that I am a better pitcher than the batter I am facing because if you don’t feel that way you get into trouble. I didn’t always believe that though so I would get nervous before games.”
“You get used to it though. It might bother you if you have an individual mindset but if you look at everything that happens as a team effort, it is easier to deal with. I have been very team oriented since I came to FSU but that wasn’t always the case when I was younger. Coach (Heather) Compton always says that we need to take responsibility for what we can control. If I throw a bad pitch that turns into a game-winning hit, that is on me but, on the other hand, everybody on the team has to take responsibility for themselves also. We win and lose as a team and there is no blame.”
Despite all her success at Florida State, Malerich found herself once again struggling with her confidence at the beginning of her senior season. Coming into 2002, she was FSU’s clear-cut No. 1 pitcher and the ace of the staff. With a difficult schedule on the horizon, she knew she was going to be counted on to carry a team that was starting four new position players behind her but things didn’t go as planned to start the season.
After going 26-3 with a 0.72 ERA in 2001, Malerich got off to a 6-5 start this year and was having to pitch perfect every game as the Seminole defense was still struggling with so many new faces behind her. She had a 1.31 ERA, which was the highest it had been in more than two years and she was once again battling to regain her confidence. Florida State was just about to begin its toughest non-conference stretch of the season when things changed for Malerich.
Florida State was facing Kansas at home and with just one out in the top of the first, the Jayhawks had already scored four runs off of starter Jessica van der Linden. Malerich came into the game to try and stop the bleeding.
“When I came in against Kansas and we were down 4-0, I think that was a turning point for me,” she recalls. “I was able to come in and block everything out of my mind because there was no way we would win if I went into that game nervous. If they saw that I was scared, I knew they would continue to hit us but if they felt I was confident in myself, I knew we could win. I told myself that I couldn’t allow them to score another run if we were going to have a chance. I don’t know what it was but things just clicked for me in that game and I felt confident out there.”
Malerich ended the first inning on seven pitches as she retired the next two batters and she allowed just two hits the rest of the way. Florida State came back to win that game 5-4 and Malerich has cruised ever since.
It wasn’t just that things clicked for Malerich on that March day. There was more to her turn around than most people knew. Florida State was in Macon, GA February 5th facing the Mercer Bears. As Malerich was in the process of recording a complete game shutout she was unaware that one of her closest childhood friends had lost her life in a car accident.
The death of one of Leslie’s closest friends this season changed the way she approaches life.
“My mindset is a lot different now,” said Malerich. “A lot of that had to do with the death of one of my closest friends and former teammates Tina Owens. We always pushed each other and helped to keep each other’s confidence up. When she was killed in that car accident, it clicked in my head what she had always done for me and thinking of her and our time together helped me get over that hump. I don’t go out nervous anymore. If I do my job, I know things will be fine.
“Her death made me look closely at the connection pitchers and catchers have. It is a friendship more than anything. During that time, I was upset at the world and I took it out on my catchers. I guess because she was my catcher for so many years and I was so angry she was gone, in some weird way I took it out on them. I realized though that was totally the opposite of what I learned from losing her.”
It was Malerich’s need to find a way to turn that tragedy into a positive force that ultimately turned her season around. Since that game against Kansas when everything “clicked” for Malerich, she has gone 15-4 with a 1.05 ERA and picked up wins over No. 18 Texas, No. 9 Oklahoma, No. 16 DePaul and No. 10 Washington.
Those big wins and the records she has set this year aren’t what drive Malerich. When she says she only cares about team goals, she really means it. So much so that she wasn’t even aware that she had set the record for all-time wins at FSU.
“I didn’t even know I broke the record, which game was that? As you can tell, I’m not really focusing on individual records right now,” said Malerich after the record-breaking win. “I could get every record in the book but it won’t mean anything to me unless we get to the NCAA Tournament. It is very exciting but I focus more on our team and its goals this year than what records I may break.”
With so many major career records on the horizon when the 2002 season began, you couldn’t blame Malerich for including some individual goals on her list coming in to her senior campaign. But that just isn’t Leslie Malerich.
The senior came in to 2002 with team goals being her only priority.
“All my goals coming in to this season were team goals,” she said. “Every year we got a step closer to the College World Series and I wanted our team to take that next step. I also knew this would be the most challenging year because we didn’t have an automatic bid to Regionals. Our schedule was also so much harder this year so my goal was to approach every game like it meant everything to us. Every game this year was going to be so important.”
Malerich knows what it feels like to miss the tournament. Florida State has gone to NCAA’s 14 times in the last 16 years but one of those seasons in which the Seminoles weren’t invited to the post-season was Malerich’s freshman year. The way she felt that day still drives her but she hasn’t found it necessary to really address her younger teammates about the importance of making it to the post-season.
“I can remember the team talking about it maybe twice but right now we are playing so well I don’t think we want to focus on the negatives,” said Malerich. “Missing the tournament was awful and it really hurt. I don’t want to go through that again and I don’t want any of my younger teammates to have to experience how that felt. As freshmen, we were waiting to hear our name and we know how it felt when we weren’t called. I don’t want anyone on this team to feel like I did that day.”
If Malerich has anything to say about it her teammates will never know what that feels like. She is extremely confident in the team’s chances of making their third consecutive post-season appearance and a lot of that has to do with how close the 2002 Seminoles are.
“There is more respect for one another on this team than I can ever remember,” said Malerich. “That has made such a difference. I think we get along much better. We care about each other on and off the field more than ever. We aren’t all best friends but we care about each other and will be there for anyone of our teammates if need be. We all really want each other to be OK with what is going on with the team and that is different than in the past.
“I think we came together because we knew how many new people were going to be counted on to help us win this season. We had to become closer to get where we wanted and we realized it was really easy to accept one another and become a close team.”
A lot of that closeness begins amongst the FSU pitching staff. Malerich, van der Linden and freshman Casey Hunter are a close group.
“I want to be the type of inspiration Toni (Gutierrez) was to me to someone else but I don’t think any of our current pitchers need that,” said Malerich. “Jessica (van der Linden) is so mature that she helps me as much as I could ever help her. We both also try to help Casey (Hunter) but there are times when, even though she is a freshman, she has helped us. Jessica is very mature on the mound and she doesn’t need me to say anything to her. She is great this year, she was great as a freshman and she will go on to have a great career here. She came in
confident and there is really nothing I can do to help her because she is so good already.”
If the Seminoles need Malerich to pitch every inning the rest of the way, she is ready for the challenge.
Malerich knows that the records she has established in her career will one day be surpassed. It might be van der Linden or Hunter who wipes her name from the top spot but whoever it is, she really doesn’t worry about that.
“I put in so much effort and heart into my time here and I have dedicated my whole life to this sport so I will take pride in my accomplishments when it is all said and done,” Malerich said. “That won’t stop me from cheering for that next FSU pitcher to come in and break my records though. I know records are meant to be broken. I will just take a lot of satisfaction that I was able to accomplish something that three years ago I never thought I would be able to do.
“I am still in awe every time I put on a Florida State uniform. It is hard to see yourself as someone who is on top of the record book in the program’s history when you are still just floored by getting the opportunity to put on that Seminole jersey everyday.”
That kind of pride is what separates Malerich from so many other collegiate athletes. In a time where so many student-athletes choose a school based on the promise of playing time or because it is their parent’s alma mater, Malerich came to Florida State because of the pride she knew she would feel to be a Seminole and four years later, none of that has changed.
“I don’t know why I have this feeling but I feel that I would never have reached my potential had I not come to FSU,” said Malerich. “It is a great school and a wonderful softball program. I have no regrets coming here. I have so much pride in this university.”
That pride is more evident than ever as she enters the final stretch of her collegiate career. While she will continue to chase her dream of playing in the Olympics once her collegiate career is over, Malerich is ready to do whatever it takes to finish her Seminole career by leading her team to its first College World Series appearance since 1993.
“I will pitch every game if my team needs me to,” said Malerich. “I am a pitcher and that is what I love to do. I will be out there 100% of the time if that is what this team needs. I hate to lose and I will give it everything I have every time out.”