A pitcher who hits? Or a hitter who pitches? Sure, all of it, if you’re talking about Villanova senior Paige Rauch. When you understand that Rauch’s hitting made her the Big East softball player of the year, and her pitching earned her Big East pitcher of the year, first ever to win both awards, there’s your first serious clue about how Villanova is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever.
You start to peruse Rauch’s statistics, maybe your eyes open wider. Probably why one of the questioners on an NCAA Zoom call Thursday asked Villanova coach Bridget Orchard about Rauch, prefacing the question by saying, “I was blown away by what a generational talent she is.”
Quick caveat. Rauch is far from the only reason Villanova is into May Madness here, facing Mississippi on Friday (6 p.m., ESPNU) in Tucson, Ariz. The Wildcats have hit a school-record 56 home runs, and that’s practically the only category where Rauch doesn’t lead the team. (She’s second, with nine, including a three-run blast that all but closed out Connecticut in the Big East final.)
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Leading off, she does lead in batting average (.420), on-base percentage (.549), slugging percentage (.720), plus hits, runs and RBIs. She’s drawn 44 walks. You want crazy? As a team, Villanova has given up only 86 walks in 49 games. Rauch drew more walks than she gave up pitching, working half the innings Villanova (36-13) played this season.
As a pitcher, Rauch had a 20-3 record, a 1.97 ERA, 182 strikeouts in 163⅔ innings.
“I think I’m competitive enough that I never really wanted one [pitching or hitting] to get better than the other,” Rauch said Thursday.
A player who, in some sense, is competing against herself.
“I really try to be respectful of her time,” said Villanova pitching coach Chelsea Plimpton. “Always have her throw before practice.”
“She’s willing to do what other people really aren’t,” said Orchard, in her third season at her alma mater after 17 seasons at Fordham.
Rauch had been at Fordham, too. She transferred with her coach. When Orchard talks about Rauch arriving early and staying late, that’s not crazy unusual. It’s all the stations in between.
“Being a pitcher and a hitter, she’s got to find time to get all her pitching in, all her hitting in,” Orchard said. “She plays defense, so she’ll play first base, she’ll play outfield. So she’s doing infield, outfield, pitching, hitting.”
She’ll keep doing it. Rauch plans to return next year for an extra season. Last season, she was the only non-Power 5 conference player named to a first-, second- or third-team all-American spot, third team.
Maybe it helped Rauch — and certainly started her on a path that directly led to Villanova — that she went to a day care where the head of it had a daughter who played softball. So while Becca Griswold got started on travel teams, there was Paige, available for a catch. “She was that second body, who had a glove,’' said Paige’s mom, Mari Rauch, a psychiatric lab nurse who works for the State of New York near their home in Windsor, just outside Binghamton.
Mom didn’t have any amazing tales of Paige performing outrageous softball feats at a young age. It was more that she began playing way up in years on travel teams. Like a 13-year-old playing on U-18 teams.
“As a parent, it wasn’t so much watching her play, almost watching what was happening in the dugout,” Mari Rauch said.
What were those 17-year-olds saying in front of her?
A twist here: Becca Griswold went to Fordham to play softball. The Rauch family would make trips down there.
“We’ve known Paige said she was about 10 years old,” Orchard said. “She used to come to our Fordham games. We have pictures of her in her Fordham gear and her visor. She was probably 9 or 10 years old.”
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Griswold’s roommate at Fordham, Gabby Luety, is now Villanova’s hitting coach, now working on Rauch’s launch angle. (Yes, the long ball is a philosophical thing. “We’re not into ground balls,’' Orchard said. “We’re not really fast, so that doesn’t work great for us. Anything that leaves the yard is really good.”)
Maybe Rauch, who played in the NCAA Tournament as a Fordham freshman, can compare notes sometime with Los Angeles Angels sensation Shohei Ohtani about their mental approaches switching between pitching and hitting.
“There are people who are physically able to do that,” Plimpton, the pitching coach, said of that switch. “But the way she is able to mentally bounce from one area of the game ... If if she’s not pitching well, she’s still helping in other ways. She gets in the dugout and clears it away. She’s so rare in that sense.”
Even on the mound. Maybe the plan has to switch, more curveballs, or work a different part of the plate. Got it. Villanova lost the opening game of the double-elimination Big East tournament to UConn, became the first school in almost two decades to win the title out of the loser’s bracket. In the title game, UConn again, the Huskies scored in the first inning.
“She’s really resilient — if somebody hits a ball hard or we walk the nine hitter, that wasn’t the plan, but she’s not thrown by it,” Plimpton said. “We gave up the run. She could have imploded.”
UConn never got another.
“She digs deep,” said Villanova shortstop Chloe Smith. “When she’s getting tired, she digs and finds it somewhere.”
What makes Rauch nervous? Does she get nervous out there?
“I try not to get nervous,” Rauch said. “I just stay true to myself. I like to sing songs in my head a lot, pitching and hitting. That’s one of my main things to stay kind of cool, calm and collected.”
Have to ask: What songs?
“It changes,” Rauch said. “Lately it’s been random TikTok songs.”
It might be the only random thing about her approach. Orchard can think back to when this little girl who used to show up at games became a recruit. More as a position player.
“To pitch, to hit, to kind of do it all,” Orchard said. “No idea she was going to be as good as she is.”