A Whole New Ballgame: Aussie Stephanie Trzcinski’s voyage to Cal

Arya Aliabadi/Staff

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With the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows towering over her and the view of Evans Diamond covering the room’s western-facing window like a massive mural, Stephanie Trzcinski knew she was a long way from home.

The room, located in Haas Pavilion, spoke to the grand scale of Division I athletics that Trzcinski had always envisioned when growing up 8,000 miles away.

When sports information director Mara Rudolph mentioned that the space was where the Cal softball team held its NCAA Regionals Selection Show — an event in which teams around the country broadcast their reactions to their postseason tournament placement — Trzcinski was caught off guard. She responded with a puzzled expression.

“Selection show?” said Trzcinski. “Wait, what’s that?”

In Trzcinski’s hometown near Adelaide, South Australia, softball games are rarely televised, much less promoted by special events such as selection broadcasts. Soccer, Australian football and cricket tend to dominate the sports scene while softball lacks its own professional league.

“Softball is what we call a ‘grassroots sport’ in Australia,” says Steve Trzcinski, Stephanie Trzcinski’s father, who serves as chair of Softball South Australia. “It’s not a mainstream sport like it is in America.”

Yet while softball could not offer the widespread appreciation that might have come with playing a more popular sport in Australia, that did not stop Trzcinski or her family from adopting it as a pastime.

Some of Trzcinski’s earliest memories consist of watching her mother play in Adelaide’s local softball league. She remembers sitting on the sidelines during Adelaide’s hot summer afternoons, wishing she could be out there playing, too.

Trzcinski jumped at her first chance to compete. At the age of 7, she passed a softball test that allowed her to start playing at a local junior association one year earlier than most other kids her age. Triumphant over that first achievement, the smiling, 7-year-old Trzcinski would never look back. From that point on, she would dedicate hours upon hours to honing her craft.

By high school, Trzcinski was clocking 15-hour days, balancing school, homework and softball practice as she and her parents drove three hours every day to different corners of the city. Waking up at 7:30 a.m., it wasn’t unusual for Trzcinski to return home at 11 p.m.

Meanwhile, most of her friends at school only vaguely grasped how Trzcinski spent her day. They recognized that she put a lot of hours into softball, but the rules of the game proved elusive.

“I remember I had some friends come out and watch a game and they were like, ‘We have no idea what went on, but we think you did good,’ ” Trzcinski says.

Without the support of her school behind her, Trzcinski drew her motivation exclusively from herself and her team. Often throwing complete games, her ability to rely on herself was essential to her formula of success as a pitcher.

But in January 2011, after pitching eight consecutive seven-inning games at the Australian Under 19 National Championships, she found her body could only take so much. At the end of the week, she discovered she had suffered a stress fracture in her right forearm.

The injury kept her off the mound for 12 months, but it was her psychological reaction to her time away that worried her most. As she grew accustomed to playing different positions while resting her arm, she felt relieved of the burden that came with holding the team’s fate in her hands. She contemplated quitting pitching altogether.

But the thought of her team struggling brought her back to the circle.

“I hated seeing my team sit there and not be able to do as well as we could,” Trzcinski says. “And I think it was that one tournament that made me think, ‘No, I’m going to come back, I’m going to pitch.’ ”

After competing in Canada at the 2013 Junior Women’s Softball World Championship, Trzcinski decided at the last minute to take advantage of her relative proximity to UC Berkeley, which was one of her top academic and athletic college choices at the time.

Trzcinski spent only two hours on campus, but it was enough to convince her that she would accept any chance to play at Levine-Fricke Field as a part of the Cal softball team.

“I didn’t even have to think about it,” Trzcinski says. “I just knew I wanted to come here. I knew what this school was about.”

That opportunity arrived much earlier than she anticipated. Assuming she would start college in the fall before the 2015 softball season began, Trzcinski was surprised to find out Cal wanted her to start this spring. The timing would give her just a month or so prepare to move across the world.

Just like the 7-year-old who jumped at the chance to start playing as early as possible, Trzcinski accepted the offer.

A rush of paperwork ensued, and Trzcinski’s departure was confirmed only a few weeks before the 2014 season began. Most of the newcomer’s future teammates only found out about Trzcinski’s addition two days before her arrival.

“They didn’t know until like the 10 (or) 12 of January, and I got here on the 14,” Trzcinski says. “It was a pretty big culture shock for all of them. I think it took a lot of, ‘OK, we have a new teammate.’ ”

Initially, that bewildering experience translated to a hesitant performance on the mound. Unprepared for the more aggressive strategy of hitters in the United States, Trzcinski struggled to keep the ball in the park. On Feb. 8 in the first inning of her college career, Trzcinski gave up four runs.

Since those first few innings, Trzcinski has thrived. During the Bears’ 10-game winning streak earlier this season, she gave up only two earned runs in 30 innings pitched. She currently leads the team with a 3.36 ERA.

Trzcinski has settled into the new culture of the sport she has played her entire life. And she hasn’t had to face that challenge alone. Unlike her days pitching in Adelaide, Trzcinski has drawn support from an entire softball community.

“I’ll be walking down the street in my practice uniform, and I’ll get people saying ‘Go Bears’ — or they ask me about the game,” Trzcinski says.

At Cal, Trzcinski doesn’t have to explain to her friends what constitutes a stolen base, a strikeout or a double play, leaving her time to mull over more important cultural differences.

“This whole biscuit and scone thing is really tripping me out,” Trzcinski says. “I’m not going to lie.”

Dani Jo Coony covers softball. Contact her at [email protected].