Zitnay's face value hard to miss

One of best players in Md., Atholton pitcher trying to end career with state title


High Schools

May 15, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Katie Zitnay is the first to admit: Her pitches are not all that intimidating.

She isn't the hardest thrower, rarely blowing the ball past hitters for strikeouts. In fact, the Atholton senior simply prefers to rely on smarts, strategy - and one of the best defenses in the area - to get hitters out.

But that snarl? That icy glare on her face? The one that locks onto hitters the moment they step into the batter's box? Darn right that's intimidating. Even from 40 feet away, that stare can give you the chills.

"You definitely see the focus on her face," says Atholton coach Maureen Shacreaw. "She doesn't hear a whole lot when she's on the mound. It pretty tough to get her attention because she's so focused on the next pitch."

Zitnay's been staring down hitters for nearly four years now, storming through the record books in the process. Two out of the past three years she's been the Howard County Player of the Year, and she's a leading candidate to win the honor for the third time this season. Zitnay, an All-Metro selection the past three years, has helped the Raiders win four consecutive county titles and has led Atholton to the past two Class 2A state championship games.

In the process, she's also done something she'll never admit: become one of the best players ever in Maryland. On May 1, she broke the state record for career wins (previously held by Surrattsville's Michelle Collins) with her 74th, a 5-0 shutout of Mount Hebron. And just last week, she set a state record for career RBIs (previously held by Taryn McDonald of Northern of Calvert County), driving in the 115th run in a 9-0 win over Hammond. She'll try to improve on her 78-10 record as a pitcher today when Atholton travels to Howard for a Class 2A West region semifinal game.

"I've never really strived for any of [the records]; they just sort of happened," says Zitnay, who is 19-2 this season with a 0.50 ERA while hitting .478 and driving in 30 runs. "They're nice achievements, and I guess I deserved them, but my teammates are the ones who deserve the credit. I'm sure that Aubrey [Barrett] scored at least 75 of the runs I've driven in. I've just been lucky that the ball has bounced the way it did."

It's hardly luck, but some of it may be hereditary. Few people out there can match Zitnay's focus, but her father, Andy - a member of the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame and an assistant coach for the Raiders - is one of them. He put a softball in her hand at the age of 10, but his daughter didn't exactly take to the sport right away. Things just moved too slowly. After all, this was the same girl who hated sitting still so much, during a family trip on the train to New York City, she paced from the front of the train to the back ... for the entire 170-mile trip.

Zitnay's game blossomed at 13, when she started pitching full time. With a rocket for an arm, Zitnay learned to pitch more in the mold of Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux, changing speeds and using movement to fool hitters. Surrounded by a number of All-County players at Atholton, the game often came easily to Zitnay, and her frankness didn't always sit well with others.

As a sophomore, she held county contender Long Reach to two hits over seven innings in a 7-1 midseason win, then casually suggested to reporters that the Lightning was overrated. Her comments made the paper, and more than a few people perceived it as arrogance.

"I wouldn't use the word cocky, because she's not, but I know people perceive her that way," Shacreaw says. "I think determination is a better way to put it. Katie is so focused out there; she's not going to give you anything."

The attention, however, she could do without these days. Zitnay doesn't want any more awards, and though she says she's still having fun this season, she longs for a life after softball. Though her phone rings constantly with offers, coaches always hang up disappointed. Zitnay has no interest in playing softball in college.

"Softball's been my whole life for eight years," she says. "I'm burned out. I'm ready to move on to bigger and better things, and I'm excited to see what else is out there."

There is one goal left, however. No softball team from Howard County has ever won a state title, though Atholton has come close twice. In 2000, Atholton was three outs away from victory before losing, 2-1, to Easton.

Last year, the frustration was of a whole different variety. Behind Zitnay's 22-2 record, the Raiders returned to the final against North Caroline, but a freak accident forced Zitnay to miss the game. During a rock concert at Washington's RFK Stadium on Memorial Day, Zitnay got hit in the eye with a water bottle thrown from the crowd, blurring the vision in her right eye. Doctors told Zitnay that she could lose the eye if she played, and so in a dark room she listened on a cell phone as the Raiders lost, 10-0.

She has no regrets about going to the concert. A few Atholton parents were critical of her choice, and that hurt. But she isn't looking back.

"It wasn't supposed to happen, but that's why it's a freak accident," Zitnay says. "It's not like I was crowd-surfing and broke my leg."

And so her focus will be the same for the third straight year. Zitnay has always pitched each game as if it were her last, so it would be wrong to say she's more determined this time.

But it would surprise no one, if Atholton comes out on top this time, to see that intensity melt away, leaving room for one heck of a grin.

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