Ann Arbor – Early this softball season, things were not going quite as well as pesky Michigan third baseman Lindsay Montemarano had hoped.
The super-charged, fearless 5-foot-3 New Yorker, who has never met a sport she hasn’t wanted to try, endured increasing frustration knowing how strong she was as a player but was not getting the results. With constant encouragement from her parents and coach, Carol Hutchins, Montemarano knew she had to work her way through the difficulties.
And then, a late-running Montemarano – “Monte” to the Michigan softball faithful – discovered out of desperation yogurt for breakfast, thanks to a two-minute window before a friend picked her up for class. That was in late March, and instantly, she found improvement in her game. Coincidence?
Montemarano fully embraces superstitions, so every game-day morning from that point on, she had yogurt for breakfast.
“It was at the time I was starting to do really well, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this yogurt is the key to everything,’” she said.
OK, so in all seriousness, what was really the key to her season turnaround?
“Yogurt,” Montemarano, now batting .318 with 36 RBI, dead-panned.
She might want to have a few servings this weekend as Montemarano and her teammates face Missouri in the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional at Alumni Field. Game 1 is Saturday at 3 p.m. The winner advances to the Women’s College World Series. Michigan was national champion runner-up last year.
It is often noted that second-ranked Michigan (49-5), doesn’t have a weakness in its lineup and the bottom of the batting order is just as strong as the top. And that’s where Montemarano fits in.
In the regional last weekend, Montemarano, who bats in the bottom third, had two RBI in the opener against Valparaiso, scored a run against Miami (Ohio) and had two RBI in the win over Notre Dame.
“The game doesn’t know where you’re batting in the order,” Hutchins said after Michigan beat Notre Dame. “Monte’s been very valuable for us, and we keep her hidden down there. Everybody just needs to do their part.”
And that’s exactly what Montemarano’s embraces.
“No one on my team cares who’s the eighth batter,” Montemarano said. “I’m just as important as the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 hitters.”
Athletes often discuss perspective. Montemarano has plenty of it.
When she was younger, Montemarano was a ski racer once clocked going 65 mph downhill while also playing softball. She had constant back issues, yes she still ran track and competed in the shot put, tried her hand at volleyball and played basketball.
She was 16 when her physical therapist, Jeff Corben, back home in Long Island, finally convinced her to see a back surgeon and almost immediately she was in surgery for five and a half hours, two longer than expected after more issues were discovered. Montemarano has two hooks, four screws, a rod and a titanium disc in her back and has exercises she must do for the rest of her life to avoid getting tight.
“I literally owe so much to this man,” Montemarano said of Corben. “He’s the one who caught it and got me to the surgeons. He’s family now.”
No one seems to know the origins of the back issues. Could have been the time she missed a landing on a ski jump or the time she fell skateboarding. Get the picture? She’s fearless.
For a month she couldn’t lift her arms to feed herself, so her mother fed her and put everything aside to help her daughter regain her health. Her parents would wake her every three hours to turn her because she couldn’t stay in one position too long. During waking hours, she’d have to walk around every hour while wearing a back brace.
“I was really down for a little bit and saying, ‘Why me?’” Montemarano said. “I thought I was a good kid. I did community service. I was like, ‘Why me? I didn’t do anything wrong.’ I was just really, really sad for a while. I wouldn’t say depressed at all, but I was just really down.”
Physical therapy was grueling, three to four hours a day, usually four days a week. And one day while she was there, she saw a lacrosse player whose spine had been cracked in half after a hit. He was competing again.
“That was the turning point for me,” Montemarano said. “I’m just blessed to be able to play.”
She also realized that softball, not ski racing, was the sport for her.
“I loved the individual aspect in a team game,” she said. “You’re still an individual but you’re doing it for your team. In skiing, it was really dog eat dog. You would be on a team, but everyone wanted to beat everyone, including myself. My best friend, I wanted to crush him.
“The team aspect of softball – hitting, fielding, dirt, diving – I love that it’s you against someone else, but who you’re doing for … there’s something about that feeling that really motivated me and just made me fall in love with it.”
Montemarano drew from her back surgery experience while dealing with the lows early this season. She was starting to press and not have fun, and if anyone knows Montemarano, she is spirited and all about fun. After all, her love of New York pizza – do NOT agitate her with comparisons to deep-dish Chicago pizza – was the genesis of last season’s pizza theme. It began when Montemarano would reach base, her teammates in the dugout would make a hand motion like they were sprinkling the cheese. This would grow into a number of hand motions related to pizza that then applied to every team member.
She remembered what it was like to not be able to feed herself. She thought about her summer work at Christ Camp in New York, and she also thought about a young woman she had seen during the summer, Bella Picard, a softball player from St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia, who is still working to regain her ability to walk after a head-first collision diving into second.
“That’s pressure,” Montemarano said. “And not being able to feed myself, that’s life changing. It just reminded me I had the game taken away from me once. I think also that’s why I was putting pressure on myself. I didn’t want the game taken away again in other aspects. I know what it felt like.
“We’re blessed. It’s not a burden to come up with two outs, bases loaded and the winning run on third. It’s a pressure but it’s not a burden. It’s an opportunity.”
And she and the Wolverines will have another opportunity this weekend.
Michigan vs. Missouri
What: NCAA Super Regional.
Where: Alumni Field, Ann Arbor.
Tickets: Sold out.
At stake: Spot in Women’s College World Series.
Notable: This is one of eight two-team Super Regionals. In last year’s Super Regionals, Michigan swept Georgia 10-3 and 7-6.
Game 1: Saturday, 3 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Sunday, noon (ESPN)
Game 3 (if necessary): Sunday, 3 p.m. (ESPNU)