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Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review, Norwin’s catcher Sara Russell signals an out for her team during softball against Latrobe at Greater Latrobe High School in Latrobe, on Friday, April 6, 2018.
Sara Russell sometimes gets the urge to bow to pitchers when she comes to the plate for Norwin. Not that she is showing weakness or submissiveness — quite the opposite.
It’s just a habit from her decorated ventures in martial arts. Just like how she braids her hair.
“I won my first (National Blackbelt League) championship fight with a braid in,” she said. “I’ve done it for every game of softball since, too.”
And while her uniform belt is navy blue, the belt she is most proud of, the one she earned at age 12, is black.
Meet Norwin’s karate kid.
The junior catcher is a model of toughness and skill and a calming presence behind the plate for the Knights (1-0) who, like most WPIAL teams, are ready to chop through a cement block in frustration as rain, snow and cold temperatures continue to plague games.
“Sara is a very hard worker and is highly dedicated to her craft,” Norwin coach Brian Mesich said. “She will play a key role for our pitching staff — communication and positive support of her teammates.”
Russell, an IUP recruit, attributes much of her on-field success to martial arts. She is a two-time NBL world champion in karate. She competes with Allegheny Shotokan, Team Kumite, out of Irwin.
“Competing in both kata and sparring at an international level requires intense focus and discipline,” she said. “And that has definitely carried over to catching and hitting.”
Russell batted .382 last season with 16 RBIs. She threw out 15 of 38 would-be base stealers and added three pickoffs. Hi-yah!
Like almost every budding softball prospect, Russell plays travel ball, for Pittsburgh Nitro. With eight years of karate training — two or three practices a week, she said — one can imagine how busy her schedule was at times.
She remembers a whirlwind couple of days, in particular.
“When I was 14, I was fighting in a major tournament in Pittsburgh,” Russell said. “The championship fight was on stage at 12:30 a.m. I had a softball game at 8 a.m. the next morning in Hagerstown (Md.). My dad and I went to a hotel right after my fight. I showered and slept for a few hours.”
Russell left at 4 a.m. and made it to the field on time.
“I played four games in 90-degree weather, and I think that was the most exhausted I have ever been in my entire life,” she said.
Softball, like karate, was something Russell became enamoured with from a young age. Both brought out her impetus to compete and improve, never settling or claiming to know too much.
“Sara is a student of the game,” Mesich said. “Her knowledge and leadership comes from learning from her successes and failures on the field. She has good surveillance and reactionary skills.”
Russell also considered Buffalo, Cal (Pa.) and Saint Vincent, but IUP had the math and physics requirements she wanted and seemed like the best fit.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BillBeckner.