An Unexpected Find
March 26, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Recruiting Gina Mondo was not something Michigan State head softball coach Jacquie Joseph set out to do. Typically the Spartans don't look for talent on the East coast and Joseph had no ties to Connecticut. Mondo, who hails from Orange, Conn., had no interest in playing at a northern school and only had warm-weather schools on her short list. But one day at a club tournament in California, the two people not looking to be found, found each other.
"I found her by accident," Joseph said. "I was watching another team play and it was Gina's opponent. I thought to myself, 'I know I'm not supposed to be recruiting her, but you couldn't help coming back to her.' I thought, 'Man, this kid is a good player.'"
Standing only 5-4, Mondo amazed the Spartan coach with her home run power and Joseph knew she had to meet the talented recruit. That weekend she contacted the small-sized slugger who had no intentions of playing at Michigan State.
But after talking with Joseph, those initial plans went out the window.
"Coming across Coach J was definitely unexpected," said Mondo. "Throughout my whole process I wanted to play in warm weather, but coach saw me play and I fell in love with the program. I loved her philosophies and the campus. It was a great fit."
A natural athlete, Mondo grew up in the small town of Orange in an athletic family. Her older sister played softball throughout her high school career and her dad Greg was once a minor leaguer in the Chicago White Sox farm system. In fact, the Spartan junior says if professional softball does not work out following her senior season next year, her ideal job would be in human resources for the New York Yankees - even if they released a Mondo favorite in Joe Torre.
Throughout her career at Michigan State, Mondo has seen a steady progression in both her mental and physical game. But things did not start out that way as a freshman.
Despite making 58 starts in the infield during her first season in East Lansing, the Joseph-described "fireplug" was having a tough time sparking at the plate. She hit just .222 on the season, including .137 in 51 plate appearances in conference play.
Joseph blames Mondo's slow start on the adjustment from high school to college softball, saying it took her a few more months than others to get acclimated. Mondo said the most difficult element was adjusting to the pitching.
"To start as a freshman is an honor, but I struggled at the plate that year," she said. "The pitching was much better than high school and playing in college is a lot more mental."
As a sophomore, Mondo improved her batting average to .252 and increased her slugging percentage to .400 - up .112 from the previous year.
This season, however, Mondo has found a level of consistency in a leadership role for the Spartans. Currently she is leading the team in hitting with a .393 average through 27 games, is first in doubles (7) homers (4), slugging percentage (.643) and on-base percentage (.446). Twice already she has been named the Big Ten Player of the Week - an award she took home in consecutive weeks at the beginning of March.
"It was a huge honor for me," Mondo said. "The Big Ten is just a great conference with great players. It was a little shocking to win it two weeks in a row. Obviously I'm not thinking about the awards, but it's nice to be recognized."
Mondo earned her first career weekly honor when she led the Spartans with a .615 batting average over four games at the Georgia Classic. She posted a pair of doubles and recorded a flawless eight putouts. One week later at the USF-Under Armour Invitational, she led the Spartans to a 6-1 record on the week by hitting at a .423 clip and recording a .615 slugging percentage. She had four multi-hit games and, which included a home run, two doubles, eight RBI and five stolen bases.
Mondo credits a strong offseason workout and a better approach to the mental game to what as helped her find consistency this season. As for Joseph, consistency is a fitting word when describing Mondo's play this year.
"Gina is really having a great year, the kind of year I knew she was capable of having," she said. "Consistency is a perfect word to describe her right now. She is coming up with big time plays and big time hits at big time moments. You want a hit when it matters and she is doing all those things right now."
What continues to impress Joseph is the way Mondo goes about her business. The MSU coach calls her second-base star an upbeat kid who never really gets caught up on the roller coaster of highs and lows. She points to her stubbornness - in a good way, of course - and says "Because I said so" is a remark that does not sit well with Mondo.
"She's not going to buy that," Joseph said.
Joseph says you'll find Mondo behind the scenes working with her teammates 1-on-1, now that she understands she has a leadership role to play. And it's not an in-your-face attitude either. In fact, it's the exact opposite of the way she plays on the field, which Joseph likes to see.
"This year Gina understands she must play a bigger leadership role on and off the field," Joseph said.
For Mondo, who can also be found adding a shot of humor to the team with her self-described wingman Kara Weigle, this season's success so far as really stemmed from her preparation to the game mentally.
"I worked really hard in the offseason," she said. "I just have to have trust in my preparation and be confident up there, knowing I can do it. This season it just seems like it has finally clicked."
Much like it did during that initial meeting in California, when Mondo was looking elsewhere and Joseph was just looking for someone else.
And then they found each other.