After finishing 19-24 and barely making the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Championships last season, IUP had improvements to make in preparation for the 2016 season.
One area that needed such improvement was pitching, as IUP’s three pitchers compiled a 5.00 team ERA, the program’s worst in more than a decade.
Head coach Bill Graham sought to remedy that ill by bringing in two new pitchers with big reputations. Brooke Darling (graduate, counseling) came to Indiana from Columbia University.
The other addition was Lauren Zola, a fresh-faced recruit from Seton-La Salle Catholic High School in Mt. Lebanon.
Zola (hospitality management) had been under Graham’s watchful eye for quite some time.
“I saw Lauren when she was a sophomore and followed her through high school and her summer team,” he said.
“She played for a very competitive travel team and that gave her a great amount of experience. You could see the talent there early on.”
Zola, who has played softball since she was 5 years old, took the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League by storm during her time in the circle for the Rebels.
She put up a 56-10 record, posting 32 shutouts and 10 no-hitters along the way while striking out 737 batters and recording a 1.34 ERA. During her senior year, she led the WPIAL in strikeouts with 247 and allowed just 11 runs in 122 innings to finish with 0.60 ERA.
Needless to say, Graham was ecstatic when she chose to continue her playing career at IUP.
“When we had Lauren visit through the recruiting [process], she seemed very excited for IUP, and we developed a nice relationship,” he said. “I can’t tell you how excited we were to get her commitment.”
Settling in behind Darling in the No. 2 spot, Zola and her elder counterpart helped drive the team to a 27-17 regular season record. Zola compiled an 11-8 record, striking out 111 in 121.1 innings.
“Lauren is very gifted and has the perfect demeanor for pitching,” Graham said. “[It] seems like nothing bothers her when she is in the circle. That is a trait a lot of younger pitchers lack. Give up a hit or get a big strikeout, she seems the same. Lauren can tune out other distractions and focus on her pitching.”
While she works her curveball and rise well, the right-hander’s trademark is her screwball, which she has worked with the longest. The pitch, which has grown to be nearly extinct in baseball due to the belief it can cause ligament damage, comes natural to Zola, so much so that there was a time where she almost exclusively used it because “no one could touch it.”
“She has four pitches that she can throw for strikes at any time, which makes her very tough to key on,” Graham said. “When she has her changeup working, she can be near unhittable.”
While her growth is obvious to those who have watched her over the years, both Zola and Graham believe she has plenty of room for improvement.
“Lauren is by no means a finished product,” he said. “If she can add a drop ball it would help immensely. She can get some quick, cheap outs and help keep her pitch count down. She will also get a little stronger and that will help her develop into a great college pitcher.”
However, she expressed satisfaction with her team’s effort throughout the season, as she believes the lineup coalesced well.
With a dynamic duo in the circle and strong offense, the team rode a six-game winning streak at the end of the season to finish third in the PSAC Central behind Bloomsburg and Lock Haven University and clinch a berth in the conference tournament.
“Lauren is an ace,” Graham said, “and there aren’t too many of them out there. She gives us a chance to win every time out there, and that’s all you can ask for.
Zola was one of six freshman to grace the IUP roster this season, so if all goes as planned, she’ll have a lot of experience by her side when her senior year begins.