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Softball: Behind the Mask: Cajuns’ Cuevas thrives, doesn’t hide, behind gear

Everyone wears a mask, in one form or another.

Most are figurative in nature, meant to hide something from the outside world. Some are physical entities, intended to preserve the anonymity of the wearer.

Others are worn to intimidate others. That wasn’t Brittany Cuevas’ plan, but if it has that effect on opposing batters, so be it.

A select few are worn to protect. That was Raymond Cuevas’ idea nine years ago, when he told his 10-year-old daughter that she wasn’t going to be a softball pitcher without it.

After all, the softball pitching circle is virtually on top of the plate, and a pitcher is only a few steps by the time a pitch reaches a batter. Hitters use metal bats, refined into weapons of destruction, and the only thing soft about those bright-yellow softballs is the name.

"He sort of encouraged me to wear it," the younger Cuevas said. "The first few games, I didn’t wear it because all the other kids made fun of me."

Nobody makes fun any more, although her plastic-and-pads mask gets some interesting looks from opponents every time the Brazoria, Texas, freshman steps into the circle for UL’s nationally-ranked softball team.

Actually, this isn’t the same mask, although she wore the same one from age 10 through her senior year in high school. She now has a new one, decorated with stickers identifying the UL squad and her number 10 jersey.

"I like this one a lot more," she said.

Her happiness with face protection probably isn’t the reason that Cuevas has emerged as a dominant pitching force in her freshman Cajun season. That probably has more to do with natural athletic talent, intelligence and a strong work ethic. But peace of mind can’t hurt.

She’s never had a really close call, although a couple of times hard-hit balls have glanced off her glove and bounced off her mask. A worse problem is the heat … and the dust.

"I usually don’t even notice it anymore except that it’s hot," she said. "It gets dirty and muddy … it’s kind of gross. It gets pretty brown sometimes."

It’s a good thing for most batters that they don’t have to don similar protection. They’re having enough problems getting hits against what was originally the biggest question about the 2007 Ragin’ Cajun squad – who was going to be the number one pitcher.

That question was answered in the season’s first week when she beat then-14th-ranked Georgia. One week later, Cuevas took two wins in two days over Baylor, currently ranked fifth in the ESPN.com/USA Softball national poll.

In mid-March, she twirled a two-hitter against then-second-ranked Arizona State, striking out 12 and besting ASU All-American Katie Burkhart in a 2-0 UL win. Three weeks ago, she pitched another two-hitter and fanned nine in beating a Houston team that was receiving poll votes.

"She’s learned to take control of the situation and the count," said UL coach Stefni Lotief, herself an All-American pitcher during her Cajun career. "She’s become confident in throwing all of her pitches at any given time, and confident in our pitching system and our expectations."

That’s helped her compile a 31-7 record, 10 more wins than any pitcher in the Sun Belt Conference, and a 1.92 ERA with 10 shutouts and 273 strikeouts in 263 innings. Her win and strikeout totals are the most ever for a freshman in a Cajun program noted for its stalwart pitching for decades, and she ranks fourth in both categories on UL’s single-season record lists.

She’ll get today’s 12:30 p.m. start against North Texas in the opening round of the Sun Belt Tournament and she’ll likely pitch all of the Cajuns’ games in the double-elimination event as long as UL plays only one game a day.

She’ll also get the first start next week in the NCAA Tournament’s regional round, with the Cajuns certain to get an at-large bid when selections are announced Sunday.

It’s all pretty heady stuff for a freshman, any freshman.

"We were playing out in California (the prestigious Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif.), and I asked Lacy (assistant coach Lacy Prejean) if this was really happening, if they were really going to let me throw here," Cuevas said. "It was exciting, a lot of fun, definitely something different than anything I’ve ever experienced."

That night, she beat traditional power Fresno State with a three-hit, eight-strikeout performance. The Arizona State win came the next day.

"We knew what she was capable of doing," Lotief said. "We’d seen her in select ball in Houston, and she had good command and battled every pitch. And once we got to know her, we knew she was going to be successful."

It hasn’t all been rosy. Cuevas has had her share of ups and downs. She had to rehabilitate her arm for most of the fall semester from an injury in high school. She had an ankle injury early in the spring season, and during her therapy she took a line drive off that same ankle. Blisters on her pitching hand have come and gone. She’s also had the aches and pains that come from throwing nearly twice as many innings as in her stellar high school seasons at Brazoswood High.

Her team’s endured some head-scratching losses (Alcorn State, Nicholls State, three in a row to Florida International), and came up one-half game short of a seventh straight Sun Belt regular-season title. UL, with a league-best 46-14 record, is the number two seed in the league tournament that cranks up today in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Off the field, she’s dealt with the trials and tribulations of any incoming college student, and more than most. Because of her strong academic background, she was taking sophomore-level courses in her first semester and is in a series of honors courses this spring.

On Monday, she took finals in American literature and calculus. She’ll take her last final while on the road with the team at the conference tournament.

"With all that, she’s handled the transition well," Lotief said.

All of the academic stress and the physical problems haven’t altered her on-field focus heading into the league tournament.

"Our goal is to get to the World Series," Cuevas said. "This is just another step to get there. A lot of people have that goal, but that’s kind of felt right the whole year. We feel like we can really get that done."

 Zoom Photo

Louisiana Lafayette’s pitcher Brittany Cuevas delivers a pitch against Wichita State, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2007 at Lamson Ragin’ Cajun Softball park in Lafayette La. Cuevas pitched a shutout in the Cajuns 1-0 victory. Photo by Brad Kemp