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Injury launches athlete on an unexpected road

Amanda Martin walked on to key roles on UConn's softball and track teams. Amanda Martin walked on to key roles on UConn's softball and track teams. (University of Connecticut)
By John Vellante
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2010

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Her dream as a senior at Triton Regional in Byfield was to earn a basketball scholarship to a Division 2 program.

Amanda Martin was a talented player, a team MVP, and college coaches were starting to take notice.

But she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in early December of 2004, missing most of her senior season, and suddenly the interest waned.

Her doctors also said ‘no’ to softball in the spring, her next favorite sport. So she turned to track and field, to throw the javelin and the shot put. To say she did well would be an understatement. Martin broke the school record in the javelin (128 feet 3 inches), won the EMass Division 3 title, and placed third at the All-State Meet.

But her college plans were still unsettled. She dashed off letters to a handful of programs. University of Connecticut track coach Bill Morgan wrote the only response.

“I could tell at once she was an athlete, could tell she was tough, could tell she was driven and had great initiative,’’ said Morgan, who has produced 25 All-Americans in his 29 seasons as coach.

“I could sense all that, so I urged her to apply to UConn and, if accepted, told her she could try out for the team as a walk-on. She did that, made the team, and the rest is history. That first year she was throwing 150 feet and just kept getting better. Her torn ACL was a blessing in disguise. She went from a moment in time of wondering what to do with her life when a new window opened up for her.’’

After her freshman year, Martin was offered half a scholarship. This year, as a senior, she was on full scholarship.

At UConn she has served as a team captain, won ECAC and Big East javelin titles, registered a number of runner-up finishes, finished second in the Big East in the shot put, and set a school record in the javelin with a heave of 167.125 feet at the 2009 NCAA East Regional Championships in Greensboro, N.C.

“She walks on the team, winds up as captain, wins ECAC and Big East championships, and sets a school record,’’ said Morgan. “She’s one of the best that has ever come out of this program. After her injury, she was left with few options, but took advantage of those that were. She’s just a great story.’’

But her remarkable comeback story does not end there.

The 22-year-old Martin extended her academic stay at UConn to a fifth year, but she had used up her track eligibility. She planned to serve as a volunteer coach with Morgan, but another door opened. Head softball coach Karen Mullins was looking for athletes for her young team.

“I told her Amanda was an athlete, that she had played softball before, that she had a great arm, and that she was someone to look at,’’ said Morgan. “All she lacked was experience. I told Amanda to go talk with her.’’

Mullins said Martin could try out as a walk-on. Within days, she was the starting catcher.

“Looking back, we were in a situation where we needed a catcher,’’ said Mullins. “Our top recruit, who had been a catcher, was in a serious automobile accident and couldn’t play. We were looking, Amanda was there and she had the arm, so we said, ‘Let’s teach her to catch.’

“We lucked out. She learned fast, had a tremendous impact on a very young team. I mean, she was away from the game for so long and then to have the drive and desire to play, couldn’t help but make an impact. And she did it playing one of the most important positions of the game. It’s not as if we asked her to play the outfield. She was in on every pitch.’’

At Triton, Martin alternated between shortstop and outfield.

“I didn’t choose [to be a catcher], never gave it a thought,’’ said Martin. “I told [Mullins] I would do anything she wanted, play anywhere she needed me. She said catcher, I said OK.’’

It was a steep learning curve.

“I never saw or caught balls thrown that hard,’’ she said. “And so many pitches: risers, fastballs, curves, screwballs, all of them, I had never seen so many of them. I was not comfortable behind the plate. But over time I reached a comfort level and learned to relax. It was especially tough trying to throw out base runners. Because I was so used to throwing the javelin, my throws would just sail over everyone’s head. I had to get that timing down and ease up. Throwing wasn’t the problem; accuracy was.’’

Martin continued to improve, and threw out nine of 50 runners attempting steals.

She struggled at the plate, but her offense was not a concern to Mullins.

In 48 games, including 44 starts, she hit .170 with just 16 hits (all but one a single) in 94 trips to the plate. She struck out 26 times.

“Her defensive skills obviously outweigh her offensive skills, but it is what it is,’’ said Mullins, whose team concluded a 21-30 season with a 7-3 loss to Louisville on May 9. “Catching is such a critical position, so it’s a tradeoff, defense for offense. We needed to have the best person we could behind the plate and she was that person.’’

“My offense didn’t concern me,’’ said Martin. “I went into the season knowing offense is where I would struggle. I was never a great hitter. Sure it bothers me when I strike out or when I look at my average. But coach told me what she wanted me to do and that was to pay attention to my defense.’’

Looking back, Martin said she is thankful for the opportunities that she received at UConn.

“Attending UConn is something I never, and I mean never, thought about,’’ said Martin, a nutrition major. “I remember tearing my ACL and then not having a sport to play and no college to attend. Things were just not going well. But everything turned around when I met coach Morgan. The way things happened were just so great. I will be forever grateful for the opportunities he and coach Mullins gave me.’’

John Vellante can be reached at JohnPVel@aol.com.