By Dave Ruden
FAIRFIELD — There were few indications that something was amiss, so little that only her coach and one or two of her teammates on the Fairfield Ludlowe softball team knew that Aliza Guerrero was struggling.
She was the same person with the warm smile and inviting personality, a strong hitter and fielder blessed with innate athletic ability, a tireless work ethic and a 5-10 frame to boot.
And even if Guerrero wasn’t as dominant on the mound as two years earlier, when as a sophomore she led the Falcons to a surprising trip to the FCIAC championship game, or last season, when she was voted to the All-Conference team, her labors were subtle enough to escape close scrutiny.
“Socially I was fine,” Guerrero said. “Fielding, I never worried. Hitting, I never worried. But all of a sudden, pitching, it came out of nowhere. It was like, I’m not good enough.”
Even now, seven months later, Guerrero has a difficult time offering a pinpoint account of how her favorite place, the pitching circle, had turned into an orbit of fear.
“It was just me,” Guerrero said. “I’d feel loose, and then in the middle of my motion I’d freak out and not trust my mechanics. It started to affect my control and velocity. It’s very hard to explain it.”
The issue, which Guerrero said began during fall ball in 2012, led her to seek help from a therapist last winter.
“It had brought me down a lot,” Guerrero said. “Seeing someone helped a lot. I also read a book, Mind Gym, and that was really inspiring and very motivational. It’s about what happens in athletes’ minds and pertains to me. I’d read it before games and used the methods.”
Still, the problem returned, Guerrero said, about one quarter of the way through her last season for Ludlowe. Giving up hits didn’t faze her. Surrendering runs or not getting the call on a close pitch from an umpire could be easily shrugged off.
“Mentally I was so focused,” Guerrero said. “I really was just focused on perfection, and you can’t pitch like that. You can’t focus on just hitting every spot. It’s a free-flow type of movement. That kind of took a toll on me.”
To her credit, Guerrero did not let her pitching problems debilitate her other gifts. Over the last third of the season and during the playoffs, Ludlowe coach Tony Samuelian, if his ace was battling herself, moved Guerrero into the outfield, where she made big plays, delivered big hits and still made major contributions.
There was no better example than the game when Guerrero said she hit bottom: a first-round FCIAC playoff game against favored Westhill. Guerrero walked four straight batters in the third inning, and Samuelian brought in Brigette Anderson and moved Guerrero to center.
All Guerrero did was make two big catches to take away extra-base hits and come through with two singles that led to runs in a 6-4 upset win.
“The game in Westhill, being in centerfield, I had a blast,” Guerrero said. “We won. Toward the end of the season I didn’t like to be on the mound, which stunk because I used to love it. If I had my choice I didn’t want to finish the season pitching. Softball wasn’t fun anymore.”
All of this is a backdrop for an interesting situation Guerrero may now confront. She is about to start her first season playing for Keene State. The school’s coach, Charlie Beach, cognizant of Guerrero’s situation, recruited her knowing she possessed skills to be an asset at almost any position.
But recently one of his four pitchers left the team, and Beach has approached Guerrero, without any pressure, about considering a return to the mound.
Guerrero said she didn’t pitch at all during the last summer season, or since her last appearance for Ludlowe. She said it boosted her play, especially at the plate.
“We’ve discussed it,” Beach said. “That’s a decision in her court. If a player is not comfortable at a position, they are not going to play it well.”
Guerrero smiled when asked if she was surprised when Beach discussed the prospect of pitching.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Guerrero said. “I didn’t want to say no because I didn’t want to let him down.”
Guerrero said she remains open-minded and might start throwing during her current school break.
Beach was asked if he was concerned about Guerrero pitching again and having a relapse. Her track record is likely one reason Beach felt confident enough to even raise the possibility.
“If it recurs, we will move her to another position,” Beach said. “She’s a marvelous hitter and can play any position. She’s what you look for in a softball player. You see her athleticism. Because of her speed and range she’d be great in the outfield. Because of her height she could play at first base. I know she’s going to be an impact player. Plus she’s a lot of fun and her teammates like her a lot.”
No matter what the future holds, Guerrero is ready to embrace it.
“I haven’t really thought about it in a while,” she said of pitching. “I’m hoping I like it, or I’m OK with what the outcome is. I’m excited about playing in college. It will be fun. I will play anywhere.”