Nicole Zitarelli didn’t even know if she would ever toe a mound here at Cornell when she arrived on campus four years ago. Now, as a senior, she’s the softball team’s pitching ace and is being counted on to help carry this year’s team to a shot at an Ivy League title.
Fairy tale? Maybe. Unexpected success? Not exactly.
“The first time I ever talked to [head coach Dick] Blood, he let me know right away that the [pitching] staff was full. I didn’t even know if I’d ever make the team, let alone play. But Coach Blood promised me a fair shot and that was enough,” recalls the Springfield, Pa., native.
As sports folklore often goes, a few injuries here and a couple of players quitting there placed Zitarelli in the starting rotation during her freshman year.
“She came into her first year as a number four pitcher. And then things just went her way and she had an opportunity to move up. From there, her combination of wonderful fundamentals and a strong work ethic got her to the point she’s at now,” Blood commented.
An exciting first year with a few glimpses of things to come was soon eclipsed by the Red’s dream-like 1999 season during which Cornell went 11-1 en-route to winning an Ivy title. Zitarelli was a huge part of the success and recalls the year with awed nostalgia.
When asked which moment from that championship year stands out in her mind, Zitarelli was quick to respond.
“It is definitely the game against Harvard that clinched [the Ivy title]. I pitched the whole game and Kelli [Larsen] had the winning hit. My brother [who happens to go to Harvard] was there to see me pitch, so that was neat as well.”
She was selected as a second team All-Ivy member after her second season and also pitched her first and only no-hitter that same year, capping the list of memorable moments that have spanned her career.
But Zitarelli wasn’t going to stop there. Her junior year — a somewhat disappointing time for a Red squad weighed down with huge expectations — saw her step up to become a true team leader.
Her 31 appearances, 172.2 innings pitched, and six complete games also established Zitarelli as Cornell’s go-to pitcher. Racking up 95 strikeouts, (a total which nearly doubles the next best figure on last year’s staff), she also assumed her present role as a feared presence in the Ivy League.
She was named to the All-Ivy second team once again last year and finished the season with an impressive 1.99 ERA and a 17-9 overall record. According to Blood, Zitarelli enters the season second on Cornell’s all-time win list.
Of course, none of that really matters to her right now.
When asked to reflect on her success, Zitarelli is slow to give herself any credit. Instead, she immediately credits her teammates and her coach as the facilitators of her rise over these four years. “Without the help of my teammates, especially the other seven seniors, and Coach Blood, I don’t know what I would’ve done,” she said. “They are truly my best friends here and that is really special.”
However, Blood made sure to give credit where credit was due.
“Nicole is a very dedicated player and earns her progress,” he said. “Her attitude is come to practice, work hard, say thanks and see you later.
The bittersweetness of the closing of a fabulous career seems ingrained in Zitarelli’s outlook for this upcoming season.
“This is my last year and I’m planning on giving it everything I have,” she admitted. “When it finally ends I know there will be a lot of tears but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.”
Blood was sure to comment, as well, that Nicole’s impact on the program will remain long after she leaves the mound at Neimann-Robison Field.
“I know that [before she leaves] Nicole will establish a tradition for the young corps of pitchers that will be counted on next year and beyond, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
The expectations, both internally and externally, are high for Zitarelli this year and she’s worked for so long for this exact opportunity. And if the chips fall just right this year, and midnight doesn’t strike too soon, this fairy tale is destined to finish happily ever after…
Archived article by Scott Jones