Cassandra Darrah winds up to pitch for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. Image courtesy of Jan Humphreys Photography
FORMER WAYNE FALCON AND UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN PITCHER FINISHES THE FIRST CHAPTER OF HER LIFE, PREPARES TO TURN THE PAGE
Though Cassandra Darrah just culminated a record-setting career at the University of Wisconsin in Madison—finishing as the all-time leader in winning percentage at the school—she claims not to retain much memory of any of the games. Striding onto the field, whether in Corydon or Madison, she entered her zone. Her short memory proved useful in a sport where a homerun conceded must be dismissed within a few minutes. Perhaps Cassandra’s greatest strength, then, outside of her pinpoint accuracy, was her lapses in memory.
“I have an extremely short memory,” Cassandra says. “That helps me as a pitcher, because if a homerun goes over the fence, I can just let it go. We like to have fun in the dugout, but once we get on the field, it’s a different kind of intensity. We have to stay loose, but also focused. In my four years, I’d say my team did a great job of balancing that.”
Some of her games were televised on the Big Ten Network, so she can always go back and watch those, anyway.
If Cassandra does not remember, her father, Richard Darrah of Corydon will never forget. How could he? The Darrah family journeyed to all their youngest daughter’s games, except a doubleheader on a Wednesday her freshman year. Her first collegiate start was in Texas.
“Literally six months earlier, she was playing high school softball,” Richard says. “And now she’s standing on the field at the University of Texas.”
While Cassandra was hurling softballs for the Lady Falcons a few years before that—she is a 2010 graduate of Wayne Community High School—the Wisconsin pitching coach at the time attended a Wayne high school game.
“We didn’t get to talk to her [because of NCAA rules],” Richard says. “But she told us later, she was texting one of the other coaches and told her she was seven-feet tall. They expected a lot out of Cassandra.”
Her impact was immediate. In the first start of her career against Texas State, Cassandra pitched a shutout. As a freshman, she led the team in almost every pitching category, with the fourth best winning percentage in a season at Wisconsin, while ranking second all-time for most wins, games started and appearances for a freshman. Wisconsin chose her as their defensive player of the year, while she also garnered a Big Ten Sportsmanship Honoree.
The Darrah family flew to Eugene, Ore., twice for NCAA Tournament Regionals, and to Miami, Fla. The farthest they drove was Louisville, Ky. and Ann Arbor, Mich. Her freshman year, they attended a game in East Lansing, Mich., where it was snowing.
“There were flakes about the size of a half dollar coming down,” Richard says.
When asked if all the travel was worth it, Richard says, “Absolutely. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We got to go places you would never have gone.”
Despite her obvious talent, colleges were not clamoring to sign Cassandra to a letter of intent, including the University of Iowa. She went from not being recruited to Most Valuable Player of the 2013 Big Ten Tournament, and first place in the Wisconsin record books for winning percentage at 86-43.
Her sophomore year, she threw all three games against the Hawkeyes.
“[Iowa] didn’t look at her,” Richard says. “And we knew that.”
When asked if Iowa missed out on a recruit, Richard laughs.
“I guess that’s for them to decide. It’s pretty easy at this point to say that. I’m sure that happens in a lot of cases. I owe no ill will, and we had such a great experience at Wisconsin.
“It was all about a connection. Her [private] pitching coach was the one who got her to where she’s at—she knew the pitching coach at Wisconsin at the time. With softball, I think you really have to recruit yourself. We sent out 12 letters, with one response.”
The only school that replied was Missouri State, where Cassandra camped, yet she was still overlooked on the college scene.
The private coach Richard refers to is Myndie Berka, the owner and pitching instructor of BreakThrew Fastpitch, who worked with Cassandra from fourth grade until her senior year at Wayne. Berka also trained three-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Fernandez.
Cassandra signed her letter of intent in June of 2010. Then Wisconsin fired their entire coaching staff.
“I was shocked,” Cassandra says. “Because they seemed like really nice people and really good coaches. But I never thought once about going anywhere else. When I had visited, it just felt like it was the place for me. I loved it. It was so pretty, by the water and the terrace.”
She took a visit to Madison the June before her junior year. That fall, she took her official visit, and got to room with some of her future teammates.
“I grew up cheering for the Hawkeyes, but I wasn’t a diehard fan like my brothers are,” Cassandra says. “It was fun, because three out of the four years we played, we played in Iowa City, so it was sort of like a home game. I had so many fans and a support group. It was probably my favorite place to play, because I had so many people there to watch.”
There was no underlying animosity toward the home state teams when she played the Hawkeyes or the Cyclones.
Her older brothers, Brandon and Grant, are proud and supportive of her, but they will also throw a few jabs, as well. They traveled to Oregon the previous two years to watch their little sister pitch in the NCAA Tournament.
From left, mother Sue Darrah, Brandon, Cassandra, Grant and father Richard. Everyone is wearing Wisconsin regalia except for Brandon, who sports Iowa Hawkeye black and gold. Image courtesy of Jan Humphreys Photography
“Brandon actually refused to wear anything Wisconsin until this year,” Cassandra says. “It’s kind of fun to have that rivalry.”
Cassandra chose Wisconsin, partially for beautiful downtown Madison, and partially because they chose her. She remained loyal to the people who gave her that first chance.
“I learned a lot my freshman year,” Cassandra says. “I realized that hitting my spots was way more important, and not necessarily the movement, because in high school I threw a rise ball and got a lot of the batters to chase out of the zone.
“If you miss your rise ball in college, it will go over the fence. I didn’t have much success with that at first, so I had to develop three different pitches that I could be successful with. I realized that my fastball was extremely important, because in high school I didn’t throw it as much. At the college level, I probably threw it 60 percent of the time. Just hitting my spots—up, down. In, out. I think that was the most important thing. Knowing hitters’ preferences, and being able to hit that one, tiny spot they can’t hit.
“Also, the mental side of it. I was almost never tired after a high school game. In college, I was just exhausted. I couldn’t stay awake, so I took a nap after every game, basically.
“In high school, there were two or three good hitters on a team. In college, it’s basically one through nine—you hardly ever get an easy out. That’s probably why I was so mentally tired after games.
“My freshman year, I adapted pretty well because I was thrown in and had to figure it out. The bullpen was a great resource as well—we were very supportive of each other. The pitching coach, Coach [Tracie] Adix did a great job of helping each of us grow as pitchers and people.”
A big part of the college game is preparation and film study. Cassandra described associate head coach Randy Schneider as the brains of the operation, working with film and scouting, drawing up spray charts for each opposing hitter.
“He stressed film a lot, because obviously it helps to see yourself,” Cassandra says. “After every game, I would watch myself to tell how I did, and before every game we studied film and scouting reports so we knew everyone top-to-bottom. But I didn’t focus on that when I was out there [pitching], I’d just study it and let it go.”
The Wisconsin program took their biggest leap forward during Cassandra’s junior year, when she finished 27-7, a single season record for winning percentage at Wisconsin. She also threw a no hitter against Georgia Southern, the first for the Badgers in 12 seasons. It pushed Wisconsin over the hump, for their first NCAA tournament appearance in several seasons.
“The first year at the NCAA Tournament, [Head] Coach [Yvette] Healy told us to act like we’d been here, because we hadn’t,” Cassandra says. “I think we were nervous at first, but we settled down and realized that it was just another team, still playing the game that you’ve played since T-ball. It was easy to scale it back and not make it more than what it is.”
This year, Cassandra led Wisconsin to a 36-20 record, including a lucky 13-game winning streak. They finished in the Top 25 and returned to Eugene, where number-one ranked Oregon again ended their season.
“It’s pretty sad to think that I’m done with softball, because I played it for 15 years of my life,” Cassandra says. “I remember winning the Big Ten Tournament in 2013 and making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, and that was huge for the program, just to see how it was moving forward, that we were a part of it.
“Looking back, it’s about the softball, but it’s more about the relationships that I made and the memories outside of softball.”
She embraces her teammates, her coaches, the people she met, the bus and plane rides as the memories that will last, more than any of the pitches that drifted too close to a hitter’s wheelhouse, landing beyond the outfield wall. She can easily forget that.
She won’t forget how it all started in Corydon.
On Monday against Lenox, Cassandra will serve as honorary captain on senior night at Carpenter Field, with the Lady Falcons ranked in the top ten and aiming at another state tournament run. Cassandra played with most of the seniors when they were eighth graders on that 2010 championship game team.
Wayne had went through several coaches before finding Heather Fortune in Cassandra’s sophomore year. By that time, Fortune was already Cassandra’s third head coach in high school.
“[Heather] was always a resource, and obviously made the softball program successful,” Cassandra says. “It’s an honor, for sure. When Heather texted me and asked me, I was really happy. To be able to go on the same night when these seniors have their senior night, it’s cool because I played with most of them. To be able to come back and stand with them—the community support has been awesome, and I couldn’t ask for a better fan base.”
Though being from a small town might have limited her recruitment opportunities, it helped her in other ways, to struggle, develop and work harder.
“You build strong relationships with the people around you, and you actually get to talk to your teachers,” Cassandra says. “I think that was a huge advantage, going to a small school like Wayne. It helped to build me as a person and an athlete. We weren’t necessarily awesome at every [sport], but the small teams that you would have, you would try to do really well, worked extremely hard to try to be better. I would say having that small school atmosphere really helped.
“There were points in my career that I didn’t want to do it anymore, because I played a lot. Especially in the summer, with high school softball, and then playing on the weekends for a travel team when the high school didn’t have tournaments. It got pretty crazy. My parents always kept me going. They were my biggest supporters, and helped me push through. I never thought that I would play [Division] I, but once the opportunity came about, you can’t really turn that down.
“My pitching coach [Myndie Berka] pushed me extremely hard. She could tell if I didn’t care, and she would figure out how to connect with me, make me work harder. I give so much of the credit to her, because she was such a great coach and motivator.”
“Her mother noticed early on that she probably had some talent,” Richard says. “[Cassandra] worked pretty hard at it, too.”
Richard tells a story related to him by Mike Mattly. Mattly was attending a coaching clinic at the University of Iowa. There were around 200 coaches, and they were going down an escalator, Mattly wearing a Wayne Falcons insignia on his shirt. One of Shenandoah’s softball coaches saw the Wayne logo and mentioned Cassandra, because they played the Lady Falcons in the last game before the state tournament her senior year.
“Shenandoah had us beat,” Richard says.
In the story related by Mattly, the coach told Shenandoah’s pitcher, ‘You either hit her, or you throw that ball so far off the plate she can’t get to it.’ Cassandra proceeded to hit a two-run homerun, sending Wayne to state.
“What’s the likelihood that you go to a coaching clinic with 200 coaches there, and you’re going to be riding down an escalator with someone able to tell you that story?” Richard says. “The stars align once in a while.”
“Actually going to the state tournament for the first time, that was extremely exciting,” Cassandra says. “Because Wayne hadn’t done it before and to be a part of that—it was the ultimate experience. To see the community support—everyone came and filled the stands—that was probably the coolest part.”
In her first game at state against IKM Manning, Cassandra threw one of only 12 perfect games ever recorded at the tournament, while also hitting a homerun.
Wayne made it to the championship game, but struck out sixteen times, committed four errors and lost to BCLUW, 9-0. Cassandra got two hits and only allowed two earned runs for a Lady Falcons team starting three eighth graders.
She was named 2A Player of the Year in the state of Iowa in 2010.
“When I woke up that day, I was kind of sad, because I knew it would be my last game for my high school career,” Cassandra says. “It was obviously the best spot you could be in for your last game. I don’t really remember the game itself, but I remember how I felt before and after.”
Faulty memory is not Cassandra’s only strength.
“The other thing is, Cassandra is very humble,” Richard says. “Did those girls [at Wisconsin] work hard? Yeah, I’m sure they did. And coaching—we had some phenomenal coaches. Wisconsin was not known for their softball. They had to change the culture.
“It was all fun. Cassandra would tell you the same thing. She’s had some great experiences from softball. She’s played on a lot of teams, lot of traveling, got to meet a lot of nice, good people. It’s no different than the guy that does rodeos, or the guy that goes camping every weekend. You congregate with people who have common interests, and you develop lifelong friendships.
“It was a great experience. It’s like a lot of things—you hate for anything to end. You know four years is four years.”
Cassandra graduates this summer with a degree in sociology. She wants to return to Iowa, partially to be closer to her family.
“In high school, I was probably just ready to get out, but now I realize how nice it really is,” Cassandra says. “I don’t think I’ll go into [sociology] research or anything like that, but the degree has made me into the person I am, and shown me a lot of different views.”
She would like to go into a career involving health and wellness, but her dream job involves teaching the mechanics of pitching to others.
“And try to help girls live out their dreams,” Cassandra says. “Because I had such a great experience throughout my life with softball.”