Kali Puppolo leading Herkimer County Community College softball through postseason
Former Hoosac Valley star Kali Puppolo spent countless hours working in the batting and pitching area set up by restaurant owner and Hoosac softball coach Mike Ameen perfecting her craft.
At the age of 10, Puppolo began dominating peers from the pitching circle of her youth league teams. She generated so much velocity in her windup that missing her location would result in opposing batters getting beaned by a fastball. The young hurler felt terrible for striking opponents with the hard ball, so she set out to improve her accuracy.
Her father, Gary, purchased a mannequin and dressed it up in a softball uniform complete with a helmet. They taped a Wiffle ball bat to the mannequin, placed him in the batter's box, named him "George" and went to work mastering her command.
"It seemed pretty normal to me," Puppolo said with a chuckle. "Mike Ameen has always been trying to implement new things to help me learn how to throw to batters and throw strikes. It wasn't a weird thing to me. I just thought it was fun and I liked it."
Puppolo's willingness to improve is the catalyst to a successful college career. She's the top pitcher for NJCAA Division III tournament-bound Herkimer County Community College (40-3) in Herkimer, N.Y. Puppolo has a 14-1 record with 134 strikeouts in 90 innings. She has a 2.57 ERA and has allowed just two home runs all season. She struck out 18 in the first game of the III-A Regional against Onondaga Community College. At the plate, she's batting .688 with 11 RBI and a stolen base.
The Generals earned the No. 1 overall seed in the D-III tournament, which will be held in Rochester, Minn. Play begins Thursday with Herkimer taking on No. 8 seed Itasca (Minnesota).
"She's got unbelievable talent, but it's the other things that make her stand out," Herkimer coach P.J. Anadio said. "It's character, it's the humbleness, the way that she's been raised is incredible. She's obviously had some great coaches in her past to help her develop, but it's all the little things that set Kali apart. Not just her ability.
"For us, we feel that we can go in and win any game that she's pitching. We know that Kali's going to do her job and she's going to lock down the other team. It takes some pressure off of our offense. We can come at you a lot of different ways, but it gives us a sense that we don't have to do it all when we have her in the circle."
Puppolo's ascension to the top of junior college softball is off to a fairy tale beginning, but it almost didn't get off the ground.
During the third game of her senior season at Hoosac Valley, Ameen gave Puppolo the sign to steal third base. Puppolo took off for third and slid into the base awkwardly. She felt the pain in her ankle and hoped to walk it off. She was later diagnosed with a broken ankle. Her final year at Hoosac was over just as it was getting started.
"I didn't know it was broken," she said. "I thought it was just sprained. So when they came in and told me I broke it, I was hysterically crying. You work so hard at something and then its just over in a blink of an eye.
"But me and my mom said, 'Everything happens for a reason.' I think because of that I ended up [at Herkimer] and I'm doing well. So I have to think of it in a different light."
Hoosac battled valiantly without its star player, going 9-10 in the regular season and earning a Western Massachusetts tournament berth. Puppolo tackled her rehab in an effort to return, progressing out of her walking boot the week before the Western Mass. tournament. But she was not cleared by her doctor in time to compete.
"I know in my mind that what I did was right," Ameen said of deciding to attempt a steal with his pitcher. "She's my best base runner and she's my best hitter. She would not want to come out of the game.
"I'm sure there were parents or people in the stands staying, 'Why would you send her?' But they don't talk about the fact that she was on base 50 times before that and had 25 stolen bases. They only talk about the negative. [Kali] never complained. ... There's a piece of me that wishes I could have it back, but it isn't coming back so it is what it is."
While she didn't have much tape to show potential college suitors from her senior year, her play for a travel team in the winter caught the eyes of the Herkimer coaching staff.
Herkimer's recruiting coordinator Tony Kurucz first saw Puppolo during a tournament in Glens Falls, N.Y. at the Adirondack Sports Dome in January before her senior season. Kurucz was impressed by Puppolo's play and after learning the rising senior was still uncommitted, the Herkimer staff worked to secure her commitment.
Ameen told the Herkimer coaching staff that they were getting a diamond in the rough and his words proved to be true. When she arrived on campus, Puppolo immediately impressed the staff with strong outings against top competition such as Siena College and Le Moyne College during fall ball.
Her lights out play has started to attract the attention from several Division I schools. Programs such as: Siena, the University at Buffalo, Marist College, St. Peter's University and Fairleigh Dickinson University have all inquired about the Generals freshman. Puppolo can return to Herkimer for one more season, and Anadio said when she does choose to leave, she should be leaving for a high-level school.
"She's a kid that loves the game," he said. "Softball is a big part of her life and its helped shape her. I know that it was devastating for her to endure that injury, but our coaches were great as far as giving her encouragement and letting her know that we're convinced that she's going to come back better than ever.
"That's how I measure all my kids is by growth. Everyone comes in at a different level. Everyone comes in from different areas, different levels of play, different travel ball programs, different coaching, and Kali's growth has been just absolutely amazing. She's really coachable. She's a leader, not the fact that she's a rah-rah kid, she's a leader with how she goes about her business every day."
Puppolo's path through the junior college ranks has already been a success. She's hoping that aspiring athletes can learn from her journey. The route may not always been linear, but if you continue to work toward your goal, the hard work will pay off.
"I would say to never give up," she said. "If opportunities come your way, to look into them and take every chance you can get, because you never know what will come your way. Opportunities will only come if you work for them and if you make them happen for yourself. So I hope that people don't give up when they don't get what they want right away."
Akeem Glaspie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @TheAkeemGlaspie on Twitter and 413-496-6252.
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