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If you're looking for a way to rattle Elyria (Ohio) pitcher Tess Sito, put down the bat and find the nearest creepy-crawly. The 5-foot-9 senior is deathly afraid of insects, citing spiders as one of her biggest fears.
|Cleveland-area cover girl Tess Sito will play next season at Cleveland State University.|
On the mound, however, she is nearly unflappable.
Much of her confidence can be attributed to Elyria coach Ken Fenik's decision to throw the then-sophomore hurler into the flames during the Division I state title game in 2007. After falling behind Hudson in the first inning, Fenik yanked his starter in favor of Sito.
At the time, Fenik was hoping Sito could keep the Lady Pioneers within striking distance while his offense attempted to mount a comeback. What he got was an outing that proved Sito was more than just another good player, as she held Hudson scoreless the rest of the way. Elyria lost, 4-0, but Sito's performance foreshadowed her rise to stardom.
"That moment changed Tess as far as her confidence," Fenik says. "That was the one moment I remember she said, 'This is who I am. This is how strong I am. I'm your girl.'"
After an injury to fellow starter Megan Bashak the next season, Fenik confidently plugged Sito into the No. 1 slot and watched her blossom into the state's best player as a junior. She effectively utilized a deceptive riseball and fierce determination to mow down 313 batters in 188 innings en route to winning Gatorade State Player of the Year.
"I would wish every coach could at some time in their career get an outstanding athlete like Tess," Fenik says. "She is a different animal; big and strong. She could go every day."
Sito's talents are not surprising when you consider she is the youngest of five children who were all successful athletes in high school. Her three older sisters mined the diamond at Elyria, and her brother, Jack, was a fixture on the baseball team. They all went on to play at the collegiate level, and Tess will follow suit, having signed on to play for Cleveland State University. Her older siblings' success fueled her desire to reach and surpass their accolades.
"I learned from them different techniques and how to play the game," says Sito, who has drawn comparisons to former Olympian Jennie Finch for her pitching prowess and flowing blond locks. "I want to be better than them."
Sito began her quest at age 6, playing T-ball with a local boys' team. She moved on to join the Elyria Sun Dogs softball squad before making her debut in high school.
In her first two seasons at Elyria, she earned 22 wins and fanned 170 batters in 161 innings to help the Pioneers twice reach the state finals. She was also a menace at the plate, hitting better than .400 each season.
"As a pitcher, you just have to think you're going to strike out every girl," Sito says. "Every pitcher struggles when they first start. Some people just don't have it, but I guess I learned pretty quick."
After mastering opponents in the regular season, she quickly got a taste of pitching in the pressure cooker that is the state finals in 2007. She showed no signs of her youth, as she turned in that spectacular relief effort: 5.2 innings of shutout ball, allowing two hits while punching out seven.
Even after that performance in the finals, last year Sito was still slated to split starts with Bashak, who won 19 games in 2007. All that changed one day in practice. During pickoff drills, a snap throw from the catcher pelted Bashak's pitching hand, breaking one finger and bruising another.
"I knew she wasn't going to be 100 percent," Sito says. "I had to lead my team."
Sito supplanted Bashak as the ace and proved to be nearly untouchable in the circle. She pitched every game -- earning a decision in all but one contest -- and finished the season 27-2 with a 0.22 ERA. Sito also continued her ascension as Elyria's main offensive power source, slugging six dingers and driving in 30 runs.
"Right now she's awful darn good," says Fenik. "She's fast. She can steal. There's been so many times she's been a game-changer by herself."
Last season, Sito again shined on the biggest stage individually but fell short of leading her team to a championship. In a Herculean effort in the finals against North Canton Hoover, she spun 9.2 innings, scattering four hits and striking out 14.
As good as she was on that day, the result was a 1-0 loss -- the third straight defeat in the title game.
"Last year was the worst," Sito says. "I just thought we were going to win it.
"I'm excited about this year because it's my senior year. Having three state runners-up in a row -- this is the most pressure. I want to make it my best year."
While she lost in the head-to-head matchup with Hoover pitcher Jessica Simpson last season, Sito took some solace in dethroning her counterpart as the state's best player by winning Gatorade State Player of the Year. The Plain Dealer also recognized her as its Softball Player of the Year, and her season produced first team All-Ohio and second team Louisville Slugger NFCA All-American honors.
As she entered her final season, Sito was even more prepared to shoulder the load as the team's ace -- and hopefully halt the Pioneers' struggles in the finals. She began an offseason regimen of eating healthier, taking a liking to salads and chicken, in addition to lifting weights and running. She frequently plays catch with her father in the family's driveway and racks her older sisters' brains for ways to improve.
Junior teammate Ashlee Stolarski is a witness to Sito's steady development. "She hurts my hand all the time," says Stolarski, who often catches Sito. "Her riseball right now is amazing."
With college on the horizon, Sito's challenge as a senior is to transcend past individual accomplishments and win a state title, something her sister Julie accomplished in 2002.
"She will not back down from a challenge," Stolarski says. "She will win the challenge and prove a person wrong. She is very determined."
Unless they have a spider or two handy, the rest of the state would be wise not to stand in her way.
David Auguste covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.