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    Sunday, August 14, 2022

    NFA's DiCocco has Tufts softball team a win away NCAA Div. III World Series

    Former Norwich Free Academy star Sophia DiCocco, shown here pitching earlier this season, has gone 18-5 and has Tufts on the cusp of an NCAA Division III World Series berth after pitching the Jumbos to a 9-0 victory over WPI in a softball Super Regional on Friday in Worcester, Mass. (Photo courtesy of Tufts athletics)

    Worcester, Mass. — Her Tufts University coach refers to her as a robot for the way the sophomore left-handed pitcher goes about her softball business.

    Her teammates consider her the team's resident farmer.

    Her frustrated opponents probably walk back to the dugout wondering how just about everything they hit ends up a ground ball.

    Sophia DiCocco, a Norwich Free Academy graduate, just keeps helping the Jumbos win and move a step closer to returning to the NCAA Division III World Series.

    "She's a really big competitor," Tufts coach Lauren Ebstein said. "She's kind of like a robot — she just presses go and goes. She's been doing everything that the team needs. Last year, we needed her to be a solid No. 2 and she just did whatever was asked. This year, she's doing the same thing.

    "She's just really playing to her strengths really well. She has better command than she had last year."

    DiCocco gave a commanding performance on Friday in the first game of the Super Regional best-of-three series at WPI. She went the distance in a 9-0 win, throwing a two-hit shutout and striking out three without issuing a walk. The game was called after six innings because of the mercy rule.

    She also chipped two hits — both during a seven-run sixth that broke the game open — and scored a run.

    Performing on the postseason stage doesn't rattle her. She also was the winning pitcher in two of three wins when Tufts swept the regionals, and went four innings in the third victory.

    "You've just to take it like it's any other game," DiCocco said. "It definitely helps that we played (WPI) earlier this season because you know what you're going up against. ... I think we should take every game like it's a championship game."

    Tufts (36-10) handed DiCocco a 2-0 lead by scoring single runs in the second and third innings. The Jumbos played their usual stellar defense.

    "Without that, I don't think I'd be as successful," DiCocco said.

    DiCocco (18-5) cruised through the WPI lineup, only allowing a bunt single in the first and a two-out single in the fourth. She kept the ball low in the strike zone and recorded 12 groundouts and also made a couple of sparkling defensive plays.

    "She doesn't strike out a lot of people, but she has more assists than maybe like seven of the 10 shortstops in the conference," Ebstein said. "She just fields her position exceptionally well. It's an incredible advantage. It just keeps people off base."

    DiCocco's role is larger than last season when she appeared in 15 games, starting nine, and posted an 11-1 record with a 1.22 earned run average. She was named the New England Small College Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year.

    That experience prepared her for this season.

    "Last year, it was my first time playing in college, " DiCocco said. "This year, I sort of know what I'm up against this year. I think my movement on my pitches has gotten better. And last year, I was getting up on the count on some batters and didn't think I could finish them out. This year, I feel like I've been doing a better job of staying ahead and getting them out."

    Her opponents apparently agreed that DiCocco is a talent. She was selected as the NESCAC Pitcher of the Year.

    DiCocco is 18-5 with a team-leading 0.95 earned run average. She's allowed 133 hits in 175.2 innings, striking out 91 and walking just 13. She combines with Sky Johnson (16-4, 1.75) to form a lethal one-two pitching punch. She's also batting .400 in 15 at-bats.

    DiCocco has come out of her shell as a pitcher and a person.

    "When I recruited her, she was definitely super quiet," Ebstein said. "And you saw the workhorse robot thing, but it's definitely more now. You just tell Cocco to do something and Cocco does it. You see that in the recruiting process, but it's just different. She's just really bought into our culture and our program and the way we do things as a pitching staff.

    "She does a great job at pushing herself every day in practice to get better. She's not satisfied. She always wants to get better. That's helped her take the next step from last year to this year."

    Tufts needs one more win on Saturday to advance to the World Series in Salem, Va. If WPI wins the first game at 5 p.m., a deciding game will follow.

    "It feels amazing," DiCocco said of being one win away from going to nationals. "Last year, we didn't know if we'd have a season and we ended up there and I think we were a little nervous. This year, we know what we're up against. We think it's attainable."

    DiCocco, an international relations and Italian major, has a busy summer ahead. She'll be studying abroad in Italy.

    Her dream job has nothing to do with her major. She wants to be a cattle rancher.

    "Bozrah is a little farm town," DiCocco said of her hometown. "Everyone has cows. I love cows. And I started riding horses this past year and I love it."

    "The joke is that Cocco is our farmer," Ebstein said. "They put her on a lot of the field maintenance and stuff. She's taught some of them to line dance. She's the resident farmer on our team."

    g.keefe@theday.com

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