Lexi Betancourt realized all of this just might work when she shook off the first sign Becca Shipper gave her during a game last weekend.
Shipper thought for a second, then called for another pitch — precisely what the Charlotte 49ers ace Betancourt was looking for — and the two promptly earned a strikeout.
That was when Betancourt realized that she and Shipper, a sophomore transfer from 2015 national champion Florida, might be able to make this whole pitcher-catcher pairing work.
“I really appreciate her mental aspect of the game,” Betancourt said. “I think we mesh really well in that sense. … I think we have a chemistry that came really fast, just like the rest of the team.”
Betancourt had thrown to only one catcher in her time in Charlotte — until now. But the fast and early bonding of Betancourt and Shipper, along with the camaraderie of the remainder of the team that features six freshmen and two transfers, resulted in Charlotte’s second-best start in school history. The 49ers’ 11-0 start — where Betancourt was 7-0 — was one shy of the 12-0 record set by the 2007 team.
The 49ers are now 13-4 and Betancourt is 8-2. And Charlotte’s No. 1 pitcher and Shipper have fast become two cogs vital to the success of the 49ers.
All of which is somewhat surprising considering Betancourt wasn’t even planning on being here right now.
The senior missed the 2013 season while recovering from surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome — essentially, a nerve in her right arm was being pinched by an ill-healing broken rib — but she still planned on finishing her Charlotte career with the class she began with.
That meant Betancourt earned her bachelor degree in exercise science last May. She took her MCAT. She pondered medical school.
Somehow, though, over the course of last season, she began to reconsider (though she still plans to attend medical school). Charlotte coach Aimee DeVos is grateful that she did.
“Everybody on this team knows the importance of her in the lineup,” DeVos said. “That’s not putting her on a pedestal. It’s just what she’s earned. She’s earned that respect of her teammates and Conference USA, alike. They understand who Lexi Betancourt is as a pitcher.”
At the same time, Shipper was playing for Florida, the team that would go on to capture the 2015 NCAA championship. But her time on the field was limited to four games, and Shipper began to explore options that would allow her not only time on the diamond, but also help her achieve her systems engineering degree.
Shipper is a utility player who feels comfortable anywhere, but DeVos has paired her with Betancourt for all but one game, so far, and the chemistry was detectable immediately.
“I think we think a lot alike,” Shipper said. “We both are not just softball players. We’re not just thrown out there and kind of like softball-player robots. We both understand the game and what’s going on, and I feel like I can tell what she’s thinking at the right time. We just kind of play off each other.”
The results were immediate in the win column, and also in individual success. Betancourt has a 1.92 ERA and 67 strikeouts, and now is 212 strikeouts away from holding Charlotte’s all-time strikeout record — a mark she views as lofty but achievable. Currently, Emily Jeffery holds the all-time strikeout record with 782 from 2008-10.
“I always try to set goals that are much higher than I’ll probably reach, and just kind of strive for those,” Betancourt said. “So, I had set a goal that was much above what the record was, anyway, before I even kind of knew. I expect a lot out of myself in general all the time, that’s just the kind of person I am. The record wasn’t really part of that. But when I found that out, it was just an incentive, I guess.”
Shipper, meanwhile, has filled the valuable lead-off hitter role for the 49ers, and she leads Charlotte with a .568 average. She downplays how she achieves most of her hits, however.
“Even when I was little, everyone would say that it was ‘magic’ how I’d hit something and it’d be the most terrible hit ever, and somehow it’d find a little hole or it’d find the one rock that bounces over something,” Shipper said. “But for some reason, it works.”
DeVos sees a patient hitter who makes that “magic” happen.
“The presence she brings at the plate, just the confidence, and how hard she plays the game,” DeVos said. “Becca doesn’t speak about it much, and doesn’t compare things to Florida, but I think that everybody on this team knows that she was a part of something big and respects that.”
They have just one season together, but Betancourt and Shipper are trying to capitalize on the instant chemistry they’ve discovered.
“I think Becca got Lexi’s respect very early on just in Lexi seeing her ability and the way she communicates with Lexi, and vice versa,” DeVos said. “It’s worked out.”
To say the least.