CLIMAX — Emma Mazzarone stares in and gets the signal from her catcher. Behind the mask she wears while in the pitching circle, it’s hard to see her intensity. But rest assured, it’s there. It’s always there.
She swings her left arm back and in near perfect symmetry, steps and launches a softball toward the plate.
For some, the ball is barely visible. The batter takes a hearty swing, but comes nowhere close to contact and walks back to the dugout, a strikeout victim.
It’s a scene that has occurred many times before. Many, many times before.
Mazzarone, the senior hurler for Providence Grove High School who led the Patriots into the Piedmont Athletic Conference Tournament this week, has become one of the most prolific strikeout pitchers in NCHSAA history.
The left-hander finished with 379 strikeouts last season, the second most of any pitcher in the state, and her career total has soared past the 800 plateau. She had 834 strikeouts heading into the PAC Tournament this week, which put her 14th on the all-time list of strikeout leaders in North Carolina.
She is 50 strikeouts shy of 13th place and 62 shy of 12th on that list. It’s hard to imagine what she would have accomplished if her first two years weren’t cut short by the pandemic.
Even with that, she has posted some of the top pitching numbers in Randolph County history, a county well known for its softball pitchers. But Mazzarone has been just as successful at the plate.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic,” veteran PG softball coach Tim Brown said of having Mazzarone the past four years. “You can always pencil her in at the top of the lineup and she’s always going to take the ball and do her best on the mound. She works hard every day and there are absolutely no worries about who is going to get the ball.”
Her junior year was one bested by very few nationally. She was 24-1, pitching to every single batter the Patriots faced the entire season. She gave up 50 hits in 158 total innings pitched, surrendering just seven earned runs while walking 29 and striking out an absurd 379. She had six no-hitters and 14 shutouts. Her ERA was a miniscule 0.31.
“It was electric for me,” Mazzarone said of her magical season. “I mean I knew as soon as I let go of the ball, the girls behind me had my back. The mentality of that team was really something special.”
It’s been a very special career for the Patriot. Overall in her four seasons, including the COVID-shortened freshman and sophomore campaigns, she was 46-13 entering the week. She had given up only 44 earned runs in 380 innings pitched for a 0.81 ERA, while walking 104 and striking out 834. She had 22 shutouts and 11 no-hitters.
“When she was 5 or 6 years old, I was running a volleyball tournament and she came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to pitch for you one day,’ and I was like who was that?” Brown said.
“I followed her all the way through. I don’t know if we’ll have another one like her. I hope we do, but she is definitely up there with the absolute best in the state.”
Mazzarone began playing T-ball at age 3 and then received pitching lessons at age 7 from former Eastern Randolph High School great Dallas Heaton and her father. She started out playing first base, but she said there had to be a change because “I always wanted the ball.”
That meant pitching.
“It was around 10-U or 12-U when we started kid pitch and I always had an advantage with speed,” she said. “Around that age, I began picking up things. The first two pitches I learned were the changeup and fastball. I didn’t start spinning the ball until the 7th or 8th grade.”
Her fastball has been clocked between 66-68 mph, which in baseball translates to the upper 90s. Mazzarone said she has hit 70 mph before, which translates to 101.2 mph in baseball.
With her assortment of pitches, including a devastating curveball, she is at times unhittable.
“Emma has never put any praise upon herself,” Brown said. “She knows how good she is and she’s never going to disparage any of her teammates for an error.”
Oh, but she can do far more than pitch. She is simply one of the top offensive talents in the entire state. This year, she is hitting .675 (25 for 37) with 20 runs scored, 20 RBIs, 10 doubles, two triples and four home runs. In her career, she is hitting.630 (104 for 165) with 69 runs scored, 76 RBIs, 34 doubles, 10 triples and 11 home runs.
Just as impressive, she has struck out a total of eight times in her career.
“I love to hit,” said Mazzarone, who accepted a full scholarship to Virginia Tech. “I was going to Virginia Tech to hit and then I had the year I did last year and they saw me pitch in California. The next day they called and said I was going to pitch, too. I have a lot of work to do before I get there.”
That's the attitude that has allowed her to become one of the all-time great players in high school softball. It’s taken a lot of sweat and a lot of sacrifice, but Mazzarone sees it differently.
“It’s not difficult when you love what you’re doing,” said Mazzarone, who played for the nationally known Lightning Elite and then the Carolina Cardinals Stover in the fall. “I play softball because I love the game and love being on the field. My goal isn't to blow numbers out of the water. I have always been big on not paying attention to my numbers. I just want to grow as a player in general. I want to stay focused to get better every year. I love to play.”
It certainly shows.