Megan Willis and Cat Osterman were one of college softball’s most dominating batteries the middle part of last decade.
Osterman tossed 20 no-hitters and 10 perfect games in a University of Texas career that rewrote the record books. Willis, the Longhorn catcher the last two of those seasons, wowed Texas crowds with her ability to pick off base runners from her knees. She did it 59 times in four seasons and was twice named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Osterman, an Olympic gold and silver medalist, signed with the National Pro Fast-pitch’s Rockford Thunder after college in 2007, with Willis following with the league’s Chicago Bandits a year later.
So what happened the first time they faced each other as professionals?
Osterman hit her with the first pitch.
Talk about your welcome to the bigs!
“I’m a gamer,” Willis said. “I’m very loud. I’m always goofing off; (but) the moment I’m in the hole, it’s serious.”
Willis laughed as she retold the story last week, the now-Texas volunteer assistant in town with the Longhorns for the Tennessee Lady Vol Classic at Sherri Parker Lee Softball Stadium. This summer, Osterman and Willis will team once again as the battery from the Tennessee Diamonds.
Blount County’s new sports franchise opens play at Alcoa High School on June 9, hosting the Akron Racers. The opener kicks off a nine-game home stand that will see former Lady Vol Monica Abbott and the Florida Pride visit on June 18.
Osterman and Abbott are sure to garner a lot of attention. Not to be overlooked, Diamonds general manager Sarah Fekete said, is what players like Willis add to the game. It’s a small-town-girl-makes-good story that never gets old, she said.
“There are so many kids out there that are great players,” Fekete said, “and you don’t have to be from California to be an all-star.”
Where Abbott and Osterman were phenoms by high school, Willis, literally, took the road less traveled. To catch on with a top travel team following her sophomore year in high school, the Chandler, Ariz., native drove five hours to practice twice a week. That’s five hours each way.
“Basically, if you want to get scouted by a top school, you’d better play for a top team,” Willis said. “I thrive on competition, and that was the best competition there was in my book. If I wanted to get better, I had to play the best out there.”
The scouts noticed, Willis eventually picking the Longhorns over hometown Arizona.
“I went down to Austin and fell in love,” she said.
Willis blossomed into a one-of-a-kind catcher by her sophomore season on the Forty Acres, so much so Texas coach Connie Clark began letting the backstop call her own pitches.
“I pride myself on knowing the game,” Willis said. “I pride myself on knowing what batters are doing. The catcher sees what’s going on. I think it (calling the pitches) makes you a smarter ball player.”
Pitchers like Osterman, Abbott and Chicago ace Jennie Finch, who Willis caught in her first season as a professional, don’t simply blow the ball by hitters, Fekete said. Catchers have more to do with it than many fans notice.
After college, Willis said she first thought she was done with softball. Her parents, she said, told her so, even after the Bandits came forward with a professional contract.
“They said, ‘Oh, no. You have to get a real job,’” Willis said.
A corporate communications major at Texas, Willis said she gave it a try for a while after that first season with Chicago, but, once again, softball came calling. Actually, it was Osterman calling, begging Willis to come out of “retirement” and catch for the Thunder. It worked wonders for Rockford last season, the Thunder rolling to the NPF championship at season’s end.
Willis and Osterman don’t limit their softball to the game field. They’ve taken part in a number of teaching clinics the last few years. It was at one such clinic, actually at the autograph session afterward, where Willis was the big draw for a change, not Osterman.
“I had a girl come up to me with a Texas hat, and she walked right by Cat,” she said. “She (Osterman) said, ‘Hey, I played for Texas, too.’”
Wonder if that was before that first pro at bat against Osterman?