MUNCIE – It’s been nearly one month since Wapahani’s softball season ended unceremoniously, and Sara Masters and her father, Jeff, are talking about calling pitches. The disagreement occurred in a travel ball game.
Consider, Sara’s high school career is over and she’ll begin college softball at Huntington University in just a few months. These summer games, on the surface, are utterly meaningless; college scouts aren’t flocking to see high school graduates. But Sara and Jeff are softball junkies.
“I (asked her), why did you call a change up,” Jeff says, “when you blew two pitches right by the girl?”
“Because …” Sara starts to answer.
“No, no, no,” Jeff interrupts, shaking his head.
“… you don’t want to throw three strikes in a row,” Sara continues. “You want to throw it off the plate, throw a ball.”
Jeff is well aware of how all this looks. “It’s funny,” he says, “but I know parents are sitting back there thinking, ‘Why do you talk to her like that?'”
That’s just the nature of their relationship. Competitive in the heat of the moment, but when it’s over, it’s over. It doesn’t go home.
As a child Sara would spend hours hitting off a tee by herself. Jeff remembers many days when he’d get home from work and her practice was over. She’d shower, eat and then ask dad to go hit another bucket.
At first Sara wanted to be a pitcher, but Jeff would never catch for her because “I was awful at it,” Sara remembers. Jeff told Sara, “If you really want to have me out there catching, you need to get better, so go throw at the net in the backyard.” Sara spent most of her time chasing the ball because she couldn’t hit that net. Jeff wouldn’t budge.
Jeff coached his daughter in her first two high school seasons at Cowan, where he was an assistant coach, before Sara transferred to Wapahani and had to sit out her junior season.
Before a senior season that ended with Masters being named The Star Press softball Athlete of the Year, one phone call threatened to throw that train off the tracks.
A league of her own
Sara Masters developed a reputation growing up. She played softball, of course, but she also played baseball – with the boys, which wasn’t unprecedented in her family. Her mom, Jill, tried out for the Yorktown Middle School baseball team, but experienced some resistance from her male counterparts, and she decided it just wasn’t worth it.
Sara, though, relished the chance to play with her classmates, and she more than just hold her own. One time, with runners on second and third and the game on the line, the boys chose to walk her. Then it happened again in another game. Her Facebook friends list doubled.
“Everybody was like, that girl’s the best player on the team and everything,” says Cowan baseball star Luke Miller, who was in the same grade as Masters, though he didn’t play on the same team. “Throws the hardest, hits the farthest.”
Sara hit .516 with seven home runs as a freshman at Cowan, then followed it up by clubbing 11 long balls as a sophomore to go with a .396 average. In one sectional game that second year, she smacked three home runs. But she sensed a better opportunity, both athletically and academically, at Wapahani.
Last year was hard on her, sitting out while completely healthy. Hearing anyone complain about anything softball-related made her cringe. She made the most of it though, most notably improving her ability to drive the ball to right field. Wapahani coach Jacci Glancy had one talented assistant coach on her hands.
“She’s never afraid to put in her two cents,” Glancy says. “She wasn’t afraid to say, ‘I played against her, she hits the inside pitch.’ That’s what you want out of competitive players, trying to contribute any way that they can. She was showing up even though she couldn’t play.”
Finally it was Sara’s senior year, and the stage was set for her to re-enter the softball scene. Then, Jeff Masters got a phone call.
Will she stay or will she go?
The call to Jeff came from Jeff Berger, who had been Cowan’s head coach while Sara was there. Berger hired Jeff Masters as an assistant when Sara was in sixth grade, and their final season was Sara’s sophomore year. Jeff Masters was an assistant at Monroe Central during Sara’s junior year, and he was planning to take this season off from coaching to enjoy Sara’s senior season.
When Berger first told Jeff he was applying for the Yorktown head coaching position, which was vacated by Chrissie Saunders, the head coach made it clear that he needed his assistant to come along if if he got the job. Sure, Jeff thought, but there’s no way we’ll actually get it. Even Sara admits, two coaches who left Cowan didn’t have much of a chance to take over a program which had won three straight regional titles.
As fate would have it, the former Cowan coaches did indeed get the job. They validated their selection this season, too, sectional loss to Delta aside, by going 22-6. But it left Jeff and Sara in an awkward situation as county rivals. Jeff Masters called Glancy on the phone to let her know.
“They didn’t foresee any of that happening at all. I think it threw them,” Glancy says. “I know he struggled with (the decision) and being her senior year. It shows how much he loves the game.”
That’s when the rumors started.
“(Jeff’s) phone rang off the hook … is Sara coming to Yorktown? He just had to tell them no,” Berger recalls. “He wouldn’t have moved her around like that. It wouldn’t have looked very good. It would’ve been great for us, but it wouldn’t have been great for her.”
For Sara, the pull to Yorktown was strong. She played travel ball with a lot of girls, and there was the chance to join the two men who had not only guided her through two years of high school ball, but molded her as a player.
“My swing was awful in seventh grade, just awful,” Sara says. “I don’t know how I hit, but I did. They made my swing into more of a MLB, pro softball-type swing. It was a hard transition.”
Many conversations followed, both Sara and Jeff Masters admit. It wasn’t that Sara disliked Wapahani; she actually really liked it, but how could they not at least talk about what it would be like for daughter to join dad? But Jeff Masters never wavered, and Sara was better for it. As a result, though, things got real intense in the Masters family this past spring.
The first time Wapahani and Yorktown squared off was the first game of the Delaware County Tournament on May 5. Jeff Masters texted Sara several times during school that day, but Sara never responded. While at Cowan, they had a handshake they did before every game. Jeff Masters went to initiate it, but Sara gave him the cold shoulder. She wouldn’t even look at him.
Sara credits her dad with helping her development, but on this day they were enemies. If you didn’t know them, there was no way you’d be able to tell they were family.
“I knew the deal, and I’m good with that,” Jeff Masters says now. “That’s why she’s as good as she is.”
That’s just Sara’s mentality, which she describes as, “I don’t care who you are, what your name is. When I’m on the field, we’re just going to play.”
Another issue: calling pitches. That was Jeff Masters’ job when Yorktown ace Grace Lumpkin was in the circle. For this game only, he wanted to pass those off to assistant coach Sean Masters, who called pitches when his daughter, Morgan Masters, threw. But Berger trusted Jeff Masters and insisted that everything remain normal, even when Sara stepped to the plate.
Jeff Masters describes the game as a “no-lose situation” because either his daughter wins or his team wins, but it’s just as easy to view at it as a no-win situation. What if he calls a pitch that his daughter hits out of the park? That wouldn’t look good.
As it turned out, it was Kaija Aikman who did the damage, smacking two home runs in the Raiders’ 3-2, eight-inning victory. Sara, meanwhile, went 1-for-3 with a single. In a 2-1 loss to Yorktown two weeks later, Sara went 0-for-2 in three plate appearances.
All’s well that ends well
Playing against dad turned out to not be too big of a deal. Masters still had her dream season, hitting .481 with seven home runs, 13 doubles and 35 RBIs. Even more, she re-established herself as a premier player – and not just in Delaware County and East Central Indiana. She was named second team all-state.
Masters loves to set goals for herself (she wants to be an All-American next season at Huntington). One of them this season was to not strike out all season, and she nearly did it, fanning just once. It was the 18th game of the season, the county championship against Delta.
“She’s one of those people that can put the ball in play or just get a piece of it,” says Angie Naaman, the pitcher who did what no one else was able to do in Masters’ 85 plate appearances. “But she always does something with it. She’s just a strong player, and hard to beat.”
And being at Wapahani was the right move for her, as everyone close to her acknowledges. Playing for dad would have been fun, but Masters loved her teammates. On senior night against South Adams, Masters badly sprained her ankle, an injury that made her ineffective in the postseason, unable to run. But what stuck with her was how her teammates helped her through the handshake line that night instead of leaving her alone on the bench.
More so than hitting towering home runs, more so than signing to play college softball, more so than playing in prestigious all-star games, that show of love from her teammates is what Masters will remember about her senior season.
All’s well that ends well.
“It all worked out for the best,” Jeff says.
Contact sports features writer Ryan O’Gara at (765) 213-5829. Follow him on Twitter @RyanOGaraTSP.