Novo’s knack for leading off helps capture SUNYAC batting title

Junior  Stephanie Novo led the SUNYAC in hitting (.427) last season and will be a big part of the Bengals offense this season.

Dave DeLuca/The Record file photo

Junior Stephanie Novo led the SUNYAC in hitting (.427) last season and will be a big part of the Bengals’ offense this season.

Stephanie Novo had a goal entering her sophomore season at Buffalo State: to hit .400.

She started the season on an 11-game hitting streak with eight multi-hit games. She had one of the hottest bats in the country, hitting .590.

Then, the goal went from finishing the season with a .400 batting average, to hitting .500.

“I just thought ‘why not?’” Novo said.

As the season went on, Novo’s batting average dipped. Despite a second half drop-off, and the Bengals being eliminated by Cortland in the SUNYAC playoffs on Friday, Novo led the SUNYAC in batting average — hitting .427.

“Overall, I’m happy because I accomplished a goal that I made before the season,” Novo said. “I always think that I can do better. It was nice to play how I knew I could play for most of the season and actually be proud of myself.”

Buffalo State actively recruited Novo out of high school. While she was playing volleyball, basketball and softball at Depew High School, former Buffalo State assistant coach Aaron Vanderlip attended games to watch her play. As a senior in 2011, Novo was a second team all-state selection and a key component to Depew’s sectional title team. Novo had conversations with Buffalo State’s former head coach, Sandy Hollander, about joining the Bengals.

But Novo didn’t take the traditional route to college softball. She decided to attend the University at Buffalo instead of Buffalo State, intending to walk on the team at the Division-I school. Then, Novo found out that they did not accept walk on players.

“I was definitely upset, especially coming off a good senior year of high school,” Novo said. “I felt like I was on cloud nine with softball, then it kind of brought me back down to Earth. I tried to get over it, but I just couldn’t.”

After spending a year away from the game, Novo missed it. She needed to get back to her usual spot at second base and back with a team.

“UB was a school that I loved,” Novo said. “But I missed being a part of a team. I had been playing softball my whole life. I think a part of me was missing because I didn’t have that anymore. All I was doing was going to school and working. Softball was bigger part of my life than I realized then.”

Novo had a friend, Kara Stein, playing at Buffalo State at the time. Stein played with Novo on WNY Sting, a travel softball team in the area. Along with missing the game, UB didn’t have Novo’s preferred major, education. Looking for a change of scenery, Novo contacted Curran.

I probably got a little hard on myself, now that I’m looking back on it.

— Novo

“I was very excited,” Curran said. “It’s one of those selfish things when you find out somebody is trying to go Division-I as a walk on and they don’t make it, but you know they can be a great player for you. We were lucky we had a great connection with her friend, Kara Stein.

“As soon as I found out she wanted to be an educator and wanted to play college softball, it was exciting to know that caliber of a transfer was going to come in a play for us.”

Novo was able to make an immediate impact as a freshman at Buffalo State. She hit leadoff and started every single game at second base for the Bengals.

Despite hitting .300 as a freshman, Novo is always looking to do better. In her eyes, wins and losses always have a ‘what if’ or ‘we could have’. A good day at the plate can’t include getting out, not even once. Even this season, Novo would talk to reporters after games and one might guess she went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts.

“I probably got a little hard on myself, now that I’m looking back on it,” Novo said with a laugh.

Yes, Novo gets frustrated, but it’s only because she wants to be an elite hitter at the top of the Bengals’ lineup. She’s not your typical leadoff hitter. At times, she swings at the first pitch. She doesn’t want to just make contact, she wants to hit line drives, shoot the ball into the outfield gap and run around the bases. She’s aggressive.

“For someone that leads off, I don’t walk a lot or take a lot of pitches,” Novo said. “Usually a leadoff hitter is the opposite of me. I think it surprises people how aggressive I am. I just kind of like setting the tempo.”

For Curran, that’s exactly what she wants.

“I think Steph is a great leadoff hitter for us,” Curran said. “Sometimes you face opponents and the scouting report says that they just like to get ahead and (Steph) goes out there and knows the first pitch is going to be a strike and she’s ready to swing.

“She’s really that spark plug to the team. That kind of aggressive nature is what we preach offensively. I feel like that’s a good tone to set for the team. Is she your stereotypical leadoff hitter? Absolutely not. But that’s why she’s so good there.”

A .427 hitter probably has a sweet swing, right? Not so fast. Novo has a number of different ways of hitting the ball. Sometimes she’ll swing so hard that, while driving a ball over an outfielder’s head, her back knee is on the ground.

“I have a pretty ugly swing, sometimes, I have no idea how I hit so well,” Novo said, laughing. “It has a lot to do with when I’m stepping. My coach says my swing in practice is a lot different than it is in games.”

Is that true, coach?

“Yes, the amazing thing is if you came to practice and took pictures of her, she has the most beautiful swing,” Curran said. “We just don’t know what happens in games. For her, her hand eye coordination is second to none. The team jokes around about her tomahawk hits and hitting things off her shoelaces. For a 5-foot-5 kid, she has the strike zone of a 6-foot hitter because she can cover it all.”

While Novo can be scouted either crushing first-pitch strikes or driving a pitch that’s over her head, it work’s for her. Novo’s ability to get on base allowed Buffalo State’s middle of the order to thrive this season. Junior Joanna Bardak hit .320 and was one of the top run producers in the SUNYAC with 30 RBIs. Junior Kate Brownell hit .371 in the cleanup spot for Buffalo State.

“She just attacks everything,” Brownell said of Novo. “She doesn’t let the ball play her, she plays the ball.”

Novo has flourished in the leadoff spot for the Bengals the past two seasons. Although Novo was third on the team in RBIs (20), she led the Bengals in every other major offensive category – batting average (.427), hits (54), runs (42), doubles (15), triples (4), home runs (2), stolen bases (11), total bases (83), and slugging percentage (.624). Novo’s numbers also ranked her atop the SUNYAC in hits, runs, doubles and total bases.

“Steph was huge for our offense,” Curran said. “She carried us in some games just by herself. That allowed some of our newer players to really pick up where they should be and improve themselves over the season. She was huge for us. She’s a great player and brings so many tools to our team.”

Novo’s hit of the season came when she bashed a three-run homer off the scoreboard during a home game against Potsdam. Not noted for her home run hitting, Novo mentioned that her power this year has even surprised her. After having just five doubles last season, Novo drilled a SUNYAC-leading 15 doubles.

“That’s actually kind of a new for me,” Novo said. “I’ve never hit so many doubles in my life. I don’t really hit home runs that often, it just kind of happens sometimes. I’m not a huge power hitter.”

In two years, Novo has not missed a game — playing in 71-straight games. Novo will be using her offseason to rebound after starting all 37 games for the Bengals this season. In the latter part of the season, Novo saw her batting average dip and showed signs of wear and tear.

“I feel pretty burned out,” Novo said while enjoying her first weekend off from softball since August. “If I have to choose one thing to do better next year it’s to not burnout before the season’s over. I just physically was tired (with) about a week and half or two weeks ago. It’s a lot of softball in a short period of time, especially when we have like six-game weekends making games up. I’m lucky to have a break right now.”

Novo entered this spring without having a winter of training and preparation because she was on crutches, stemming from a procedure that was done on her foot.  She plans on following the workout schedule designed by Buffalo State strength and conditioning coach Nate Young this summer.

With two years of eligibility remaining and her junior year beginning in a few months, the sky is the limit for Novo.

“We just hope she’s as good as she was this year,” Curran said.

.427? Again? Would Novo be satisfied with that?

“There’s still a lot of room to improve, hopefully the next two years will be even better,” Novo said.

Chalk down .500.

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