Texas is known as the Lone Star State, but Seton Hall head coach Paige Smith has herself a duo.
Already 10 games into the spring season, freshmen standouts and Texas natives Madison Strunk (Adkins) and Chrisa Head (Lewisville) have provided a jolt to a Pirates team that finished 25-28 and 10-10 in the Big East play a season ago.
Strunk leads the staff with a 3.18 ERA and a 5-2 record. The 5-foot-10-inch righty also tops the team in strikeouts, innings, starts and appearances.
“I honestly don’t look at my stats,” she said. “My ERA is important to me because I want to keep it as low as possible for the team. But stats? No. I just want to get better.”
Head, who boasts SHU’s second-lowest ERA and fourth-highest batting average, concurred with her fellow Texan.
“Just like Maddie, in high school I never looked at my stats,” Head said. “I’m not the person to look at my stats. After a game, I think about if I did the best I could – in that game. And honestly, I’m just trying to help out my team the most I can, and fit in my role.”
Two years before they were starring for Seton Hall, Strunk and Head were pitching next to one another at a camp in Louisiana. The total strangers, who lived about six hours from one another, struck up a conversation about the blistering heat that day. Then, Strunk casually mentioned her upcoming trip to South Orange – and to her surprise, Head was planning on visiting the Hall’s campus, as well.
They made an official visit together, but did not decide to commit as a unit.
“When we’re coaching, people always say ‘You can’t get a kid to leave Texas,’ or ‘You can’t get a kid to leave Georgia,’” Smith said. “We have a motto in our office. It’s ‘Tell me I can’t.’”
While the on-field success has been there, the pitchers still miss things – mostly family – from back home. The biggest difference from Texas to New Jersey, though? Easy.
“The food. Definitely the food,” Strunk said. “It’s much better (in Texas), I’m not gonna lie.”
Head quickly agreed, and said that during the trip back from the team’s opening tournament in Louisiana, she, Strunk and Brianna Wallace, who is from Fort Worth, introduced their teammates to Whataburger, a hugely-popular southern chain.
Aside from missing their favorite burger joint, the freshmen are adjusting to the wintery New Jersey. weather, too.
“Snow? Never,” Strunk said. “This was the first time I’ve seen snow – ever in my life. It was awesome. I stayed outside for five hours.”
Head said she had seen snow before, but “only like an inch. Nothing like this.”
Snow for rodeos isn’t exactly a fair trade.
“[New Jersey]’s very different,” Head said. “Everything is close here. In Texas, it’s so spread out. And we have rodeos and stuff. It’s more country. I do (miss it). But I love it here.”
Smith loves having them here, too.
“We recruit great kids and try not to screw ‘em up. You can’t win a race if you’re sitting on anything other than a thoroughbred. Our kids are awesome. It’s my job to make sure they reach their full potential.”
Strunk has been the undis- puted workhorse on the mound. That wasn’t a surprise, and nei- ther was Head’s proficiency from the bump. But her hitting caught Smith off-guard.
“I think Coach was surprised when I came in and could hit,” Head said. “But I love being in the lineup and helping out my team any way I can.”
Head is hitting .335 and has six RBI on the season. She also bombed a home run in Feb. 12’s 6-0 win over Stephen F. Austin.
“Chrisa was absolutely right,” Smith said. “I had no idea she can hit like she is. She would get hit for in travel ball, which a lot of people do to protect their pitcher. But we put her in to hit a couple times in practice, and I almost lost my head. The ball jumps off her bat in a different way.”
Smith jokingly jabbed Head’s speed while complimenting her power.
“Anybody that watched our game this weekend will tell you that she needs to hit it that far because she’s home to first on a sundial,” Smith said with a laugh. “She hit a ball off the wall in the dead gap and it was a single for her. So we’re working on that.”
Despite the minor weakness, Head’s ability to shine in both roles gives the team a unique advantage against more shallow opponents.
“When you have your relief pitcher in your starting lineup, the sky is the limit in what you can do,” Smith said. “We have three kids on our bench that would start for anybody else in the Big East. The fact that Chrisa is also a pitcher is going to push her to the top.”
When asked about team goals, both Strunk and Head were ada- mant about making the postseason.
“Oh, yeah. Big East,” the latter said with a smile. “Definitely.”
For Smith, that was like music – country, of course – to her ears. “To hear them say that, I’m just so excited. Instead of becoming the exception, when that becomes the expectation, you know something’s right.”
Thomas Duffy can be reached at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TJDhoops.