March 13, 2009
By Larry Watts
Samantha Marder is a history major who loves to study battles and rates her visit to Michelangelo's David in Florence, Italy as "one of the most amazing experiences in my life." Hence, the junior power-hitting catcher thrives in the role of the underdog and is ready to prove all the experts wrong as she leads Ohio State into battle for the Big Ten softball championship.
It was only two years ago, during Marder's freshman campaign, when Ohio State broke through the Northwestern-Michigan blockade to win both the Big Ten regular season and tournament championships. The Buckeyes followed that season up with a 33-23 record last year, their fifth straight season of 30-plus wins, but a 11-17 finish doomed any postseason hopes.
As a result, Ohio State failed to gain a sniff in either of this year's preseason polls while Michigan and Northwestern again cracked the top 25. But now, after a 15-3 start, the Buckeyes find themselves No. 17 in the ESPN.com/USA poll and ranked No. 22 by the USA Today/NFCA (coaches' poll).
"We want everyone to treat us like we're David," says Marder of the young man who overcame all odds to defeat Goliath. "I feel like I should say we're overrated, not very good and don't expect a lot from us. It's all part of the game plan of making people think we are down again.
"But what I will say is we will be ready for every competition. We're ready to show the country we're really a great program. I hope everyone is looking past us right now because it will make our job a lot easier."
Marder made an instant impact in the Ohio State lineup as a freshman. Named first team All-Big Ten, she started all 58 games while hitting .359 and delivering 10 home runs with 49 runs-batted in. The following year, she received all-conference honors for a second time and was third team All-America after hitting .478 and carrying a slugging percentage of .848, both of which ranked second in the league. She belted 14 home runs and drove in 54.
But the lack of a proven bat behind her in the lineup last season allowed opponents to pitch around her. She led the nation with 60 walks.
However, that strategy is not going to work in 2009. Power-hitting right fielder Courtney Pruner, who missed last year (hip surgery), is back in the cleanup spot and has already hit four home runs. First baseman Tory Haddad (.395) provides valuable insurance in No. 5 spot.
"We've got a lot more depth in our lineup now," says Marder, who is hitting .389 on the season and leads the Big Ten in home runs (9), slugging percentage (.963) and total bases (52). "Now we have some great hitters coming up right after me."
Marder, who is on this year's USA Softball player of the year watch list, traces her love for history back to her father, who studied history at UCLA.
"I think it's important to discover why things are the way they are," the Calabasas, Calif. native says. "If you want to make any kind of impact on the future, you have to discover why the present is the way it is. I haven't really decided on an emphasis yet, but I really do like the pre-Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the 1960s."
Visiting the David statue has left her with a lasting impression.
"It was just a powerful thing to look at, not just as an athlete, but as a human being," she says. "It really affected me when I saw it because I really wasn't the best softball player by any means while growing up, but I was fortunate to have really good coaching and I worked really hard. I just like any story where someone who doesn't look like they can make it can overcome great odds and do something."
According to Marder, her path to Ohio State really started when she was around 15. That's when she approached her coach, Tom Sotelo.
"I had to choose if I was going to play softball or quit because things weren't going as well as I wanted," she says. "I knew if I decided to stay with softball, I would have to make a drastic improvement.
"I spent two years working really hard (with Sotelo). My arm was weak; I couldn't even make the throw to second. I did a lot of arm strengthening and fine-tuned my hitting. I also worked on my nutrition because I was just focused on becoming the best player I could be."
Instead of accepting one of many offers close to home, Marder chose Ohio State, where her grandfather had been an undergrad.
"Because of my grandfather, I always knew about Ohio State and how great the school and tradition was, so they were always on my radar," she says. "I was fortunate enough to get recruited by OSU and just loved everything about it on my visit. They had a very good softball program and I was just hoping to make an impact.
"My mind was pretty set to get away from home and explore. I love my parents and they're able to see a lot of my games, but you're going to grow more if you don't always have your parents by your side. It was time to see what the rest of the country was like."
Marder attributes her instant success with the Buckeyes to her work ethic.
"When you go to college, you have to make a decision on what kind of player you want to be," she says. "It takes a lot of hard work to be a good softball player in college because everyone is good. I was on a mission, I didn't want to go to college and that was it. Luckily, I got opportunities and I'm proud of what I have done.
"I didn't want to be one of those players who looked back and wished I had done something differently during these four years. As long as I work as hard as I can, I'm going to be OK with myself at the end of my career."
And don't think Marder's game is all about offense. She thrives on the opportunity to handle one of the best pitching staffs in the Big Ten and the challenge of cutting down the speediest of runners.
"I love it when I hear a runner is 17-for-17 or 25-for-25 in stolen bases," she says. "I want to be the first one to throw her out. I want that challenge."
Although she plans to coach college softball some day, Marder first wants to get drafted. She says she isn't anywhere close to hanging up her spikes.
"I'm going to keep playing softball until someone drags me off the field," she says. "I don't see myself giving this up until I physically can't play anymore.
"I can't describe the feeling I get when I'm in the batter's box; it's just a feeling every athlete gets when they're playing the sport they love. When I get that feeling, even on a bad day, I know there's something I'm doing right in the world. I hope everyone feels like that at that moment in time when they know where they are supposed to be in life."
Although the Buckeyes have already chalked up wins over nationally-ranked LSU and Texas A&M during their hot start, Marder says her teammates have their feet firmly planted on the diamond as the Big Ten battles begin next week.
"We're not looking past anyone; we'll treat every team like it's the No. 1 team in the country," she says. "And we want everyone to treat us like we're David."