Denischuk transfers her power to UMBC

After short stays at two junior colleges and Auburn, the first baseman is at home with the Retrievers.

May 10, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

What's more remarkable, that Melanie Denischuk is one of the nation's most productive college softball players or the path she took to UMBC?

Denischuk, a junior first baseman who leads the NCAA in RBIs and is tied for second in home runs and is third in slugging percentage, is among 25 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award.

After stops on three continents and four college campuses, Denischuk is touching all the bases with her power.

She lists her hometown as Poway, a suburb of San Diego, but her parents relocated there just last August. Denischuk was raised in the Canadian Rockies, in the town of Carstairs, 30 miles north of Calgary. She spent a high school semester as an exchange student in Melbourne, Australia, and visited France when her brother Blake was paid to play baseball there.

Her own softball career took her to junior colleges in Oklahoma and Florida, then Auburn University, where Denischuk finally felt lost. Injury and illness led her to a Retrievers program that she initially jilted.

As a girl, Denischuk played winter games such as curling and ringette, a version of ice hockey, and sports more familiar to her UMBC teammates, such as basketball, track and field and volleyball. The climate made for an abbreviated softball season, which caught up to Denischuk in the states.

"It wasn't a long softball season in Canada," Denischuk said. "When I got to junior college, we could practice every day in the fall, then play 65 games in the spring."

At Seminole (Okla.) State College in fall 2002, Denischuk tore her right anterior cruciate ligament and underwent surgery. She did not play in the spring of 2003, and transferred to Indian River (Fla.) Community College, which she helped to a second-place finish at the 2005 national junior college tournament.

Denischuk has an uncle who lives in Ellicott City, one reason she visited UMBC during the 2004-05 school year and gave coach Joe French an oral commitment. Once Auburn came calling, however, she jumped at the chance to play in the Southeastern Conference.

"I told her," French said, "that if it doesn't work out there, to give me the first call."

It didn't. A respiratory infection held Denischuk out of practice at Auburn last fall. A teammate gained the first base job, and a college town in Alabama wasn't the right fit. When Denischuk found she was still welcome at UMBC, she committed to the Retrievers a second time without knowing what kind of scholarship aid French could offer.

The pitching in America East isn't what she would have faced in the SEC, but after hitting 14 home runs in two seasons combined at Indian River, Denischuk did not anticipate being this big a force in her first season of NCAA softball.

"It is a bit of a shock, the numbers I've put up here," Denischuk said last month. "I struggled in our first tournament of the season, but then Joe widened my stance and opened my front foot some. Mentally, I've become a better hitter. It also helps that people can't pitch around me."

UMBC has 45 wins, two shy of the school record, and made its conference tournament for the first time since 2003. The Retrievers open America East tournament play tomorrow against Albany, at Maine.

Stevie Shore and Reilly Ward have combined for 26 of a team-record 80 home runs, but after Denischuk spent four straight weeks as America East Player of the Week, opposing pitchers had had enough. She had 21 home runs through 46 games, but just one in the past 17. In one recent four-game stretch, Denischuk walked 12 times.

Denischuk has been playing with a bone bruise in her right wrist, sustained April 14 against Boston University. She was working from the front of the batter's box, where she can react before a pitch begins to move.

"You should see her hit from 20 feet against a pitching machine," French said. "I've seen a lot of good hitters against a machine, but Melanie has transferred those reflexes to the game itself."

Denischuk is among a group of Player of the Year candidates that includes the likes of Cat Osterman, the Texas pitcher who was on the U.S. gold-medal team at the Athens Olympics. Representing Canada in the 2008 Olympics is no fantasy for Denischuk, who wants to use the momentum of this spring to put more stamps in her passport.

"When I went to Australia in 2000, it was an exciting time, right after the Sydney Olympics," Denischuk said. "There are a lot of places in Asia I want to see, and I definitely want to go to Beijing."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

High on charts

UMBC's Melanie Denischuk has made her presence felt in the NCAA Division I statistics.

NCAA

Category ........................... Total ...................... NCAA rank

Home runs ............................. 22 ........................... 2nd (tie)

RBIs ....................................... 80 ...............................1st

Slugging pct........................ .874 ............................. 3rd

Batting avg........................ .440 .............................. 15th

(Seasonal totals and NCAA rankings are through Sunday.)

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