Gazette Softball Player of the Year: Ella Schaeffer, South Hadley

South Hadley pitcher Ella Schaeffer throws against Cohasset in an MIAA Division 4 Round of 32 game earlier this season.

South Hadley pitcher Ella Schaeffer throws against Cohasset in an MIAA Division 4 Round of 32 game earlier this season. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

South Hadley pitcher Ella Schaeffer throws against Cohasset in an MIAA Division 4 Round of 32 game earlier this season.

South Hadley pitcher Ella Schaeffer throws against Cohasset in an MIAA Division 4 Round of 32 game earlier this season. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

By CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 07-05-2024 12:01 PM

SOUTH HADLEY – On April 15, South Hadley pitcher Ella Schaeffer reached 500 career strikeouts, normally a milestone reserved for the very best seniors at the end of their careers. She was just a junior, and at 16, a year young for her grade. 

By June 3, Schaeffer hit 750. With 332 strikeouts this year, she now has 796 for her career, well on pace for 1,000 career punchouts – an almost unheard of achievement. Schaeffer is the 2024 Daily Hampshire Gazette Softball Player of the Year. 

“Now I’m closer to reaching that 1,000 [mark],” Schaeffer said. “I want to get there.”

If she tallies another 332 whiffs next season, she’ll end her career with a gaudy 1,128 strikeouts. The all-time Massachusetts record of 1,245 strikeouts, held by Norton’s Kelly Nelson, might be in reach if South Hadley makes another deep postseason run.

“I don’t know if I’m going to get that in one year,” Schaeffer said. “But it’s definitely a goal.”

In Schaeffer’s junior season, she posted a 1.01 ERA, 15.4 K per seven innings, 5 H/7, 1 BB/7 and a 0.85 WHIP. At the plate, she led the Tigers with a .475 average and 14 RBIs from the cleanup spot. In three state playoff games, including matchups against the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds, she allowed just two earned runs in 20 innings with 43 strikeouts.

“What she’s doing is she’s bringing recognition to the school that it doesn’t get in the sport of softball,” Tigers head coach Junior Perez said. “It’s really making a difference in the youth leagues. I’ve seen a lot of those kids coming to games. When she walks into a Dunkin’ Donuts in South Hadley, people know who she is.”

Schaeffer started pitching at 9 years old with Steve Putnam of Putnam Pitching School in Bernardston. Every Saturday morning, she’d come for an hour-long lesson. She’s worked with Putnam every year of her career since, except for this past season, and credited much of her success to those sessions. 

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Putnam saw promise in her initially, but Schaeffer split playing time through Suburban League and her freshman year at South Hadley. It was only in her sophomore year where she finally earned the full-time starting job. This year, no other Tiger even touched the mound.

“She’s one of the best that has ever come through the program,” Putnam said. “There have been a whole lot of others as we’ve been in business here for 30 years but she’s very, very good. At the time right now, she is one of the top five in Massachusetts without any question.”

In that freshman season, South Hadley went 15-5, their first winning record in a decade. Schaeffer split pitching duties with Sophia Faginski the whole year, but was often called in when Faginski ran into trouble, and ended the season with far more innings pitched. Once Faginski transferred to Easthampton after the season, the job was Schaeffer’s.

“High school was definitely like a new horizon,” Schaeffer said. “I got a new sense of who I am and what I can do and what I can bring.”

Last year, as a sophomore, Schaeffer led the Tigers to a 14-0 campaign in the Suburban West, but when it came time for playoff seeding, South Hadley’s strength of schedule was so weak that the team had to travel to central Mass. for their first round playoff game. The Tigers didn’t play well, and just like that, their season was over.

Schaeffer racked up gaudy stats, but never got to gauge her skills against the best teams in western Mass. 

Ahead of this season, the Tigers moved up to the far more competitive Valley Wheel and scheduled games against Valley League teams Westfield, Agawam, Pittsfield and Minnechaug, in addition to league games against West Springfield, Easthampton, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow and Monson.

Despite the dramatic uptick in competition, Schaeffer performed even better and led the Tigers to a 13-5 finish in the regular season, including a quartet of 1-0 wins. On April 30 against Easthampton, she pitched a complete game shutout and delivered the extra-inning walk off hit.

When playoff seeding time came, South Hadley drew the No. 10 seed – a dozen places higher than the previous season.

“I felt like I earned it,” Schaeffer said. “...this year felt like we earned this, we earned this spot, we earned the right to be here.”

In the state playoffs, Schaeffer pitched South Hadley to a 3-0 win over No. 23 Cohasset in the Round of 32 and a 2-0 upset of No. 7 Amesbury in the Round of 16. No. 2 Tyngsborough knocked them out in the quarterfinals with a barrage of bunts to escape with a 4-1 win.

Schaeffer and the rest of the Tigers have already set a new standard for the softball program, Perez said. And she’s got one year left.

“South Hadley’s not here to joke around,” Schaeffer said. “We’re here to play. It’s not the same old South Hadley that freshman year was.”