As a newcomer to Minnesota, Jessica Allister knew little about the recruits she was inheriting when she became the Gophers softball coach in 2010. So she relied on pitching coach Piper (Marten) Ritter to fill her in on Sara Moulton.
Ritter, one of the greatest pitchers in Gophers history, made a bold prediction.
“With any freshman, you’re like, ‘We’ll see how it goes,’ ” Allister said. “You just don’t know how they’re going to react. But Coach Ritter said, ‘She’s going to be our ace.’ ”
Over the past four years, with Ritter’s assistance, Moulton’s career has played out just as her mentor envisioned. The senior from Eagan has broken five school records — several that belonged to Ritter — and become the catalyst for the program’s revival. The Gophers (33-8), in the midst of the best season so far in school history, are ranked 12th in one national poll and 13th in another going into a seven-game homestand that begins Wednesday.
Under Allister’s guidance, the Gophers have built a loaded lineup that made the NCAA tournament last spring for the first time in a decade. Moulton has been at the center of the progress. After overpowering hitters during her high school days, she has become a savvy pitcher who frustrates batters with her fine control and a workhorse whose durability is based on sound mechanics and strength.
Moulton holds Gophers career marks for victories (105), complete games (104), strikeouts (1,132), shutouts (45) and innings pitched (961⅓). The records she prizes most are the ones her team has compiled each season, as she has helped to reinvigorate the program she has idolized since childhood.
“One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to contribute to a program that had the potential to be where we are now,” said Moulton, whose 10 shutouts this season are tied for second most in NCAA Division I. “We’ve put in the work every single year. Everyone’s been committed to reaching our goals, and we keep setting the bar higher.
“It’s come a long way in four years. This program is going places, and it’s been an absolute privilege being part of it.”
Though Ritter felt confident Moulton would excel, she couldn’t have predicted how many school records she would break. As much as she treasures the marks she set, Ritter has been equally gratified to see several of them pass to a pitcher she admires for her dedication and selflessness.
“I knew she was going to work hard, and that’s all you can ask,” said Ritter, who played from 2001 to ’04. “I’m really happy for her. I’ve seen all the sweat and work she’s put in.”
As a youngster, Moulton wanted to pitch so she could be involved in every play. Daily work with her father, Jeff, developed the form that led to a career record of 83-13 at Eagan High School and earned her Minnesota’s Ms. Softball award in 2010.
Ritter helped her develop the skills that would make her effective in college. Moulton knows how to work hitters and loves jamming them inside. Her solid mechanics, and her ability to keep pitch counts low, allows her to throw lots of innings; her strength, maintained by diligent year-round work in the weight room, allows her to throw just as hard late in games as she does early.
“As the game goes on, you see hitters start to get really aggressive because she throws a lot of strikes,” Ritter said. “She gets ahead on the corners. Once that happens, she kicks in her changeup. She can mix in a lot of different looks throughout the game.”
Moulton is proud of the culture she and her fellow upperclassmen have created. When she was a freshman, she said, only half the team came to the weight room during the summer. Now, everyone does. Their loss in last spring’s NCAA regionals motivated them; their national ranking is their highest since 1997.
With 10 regular-season games left, Moulton is 20-6 with a 1.73 ERA, second best in the Big Ten. Her next ambition is helping the Gophers win the conference tournament. That’s a realistic goal, Allister said, largely because of Moulton.
“We believe that with Moulton on the mound, we can beat anybody in the country,” Allister said. “To have a pitcher like that, where you have that kind of confidence in them, it changes the whole tone of the game. Sara has absolutely been the driving force behind this team.”