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The Heart and Humor of Fresno State Softball : College sports: Huntington Beach native Martha Noffsinger is in the NCAA record books. Now, she wants to be on a national champion.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A screeching howl echoes across the Fresno State softball field, surely the plaintive wail of a soul in mourning. As it turns out, however, it’s just Martha Noffsinger “singing” Happy Birthday to a teammate.

If you live in Fresno, further explanation is probably not necessary. Those unfamiliar with the team, however, will need to understand that Noffsinger, a senior shortstop from Huntington Beach, is much more than just an offensive catalyst and a defensive key. She’s the heart and humor of the Fresno program. She’s entertaining, to be sure, but it’s her abounding love for the game that’s so clearly contagious. Nobody should have this much fun doing anything.

It’s great to watch her play during a game, but it’s even more fun to watch her play during a rain delay.

“I guess my favorite was the time she and (catcher) Shelly Stokes and (former player) Kathy Mayer put towels on like big diapers and then went out and sang and danced in front of the fans,” said teammate Gina LoPiccolo, a junior third baseman from Sunny Hills High School.

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Noffsinger also started a between-innings ritual at Fresno, a variation on the high-five theme. Each infielder has her own personally choreographed, elaborate handshake that includes all sorts of gyrations, patty-cake moves and even elbows and noses.

This Bulldog hand-jive has been featured often on local television and is sweeping the softball society.

"(Pitcher) Carie Dever and I started it as freshmen, just fooling around in practice,” Noffsinger said. “It was good for us. We were starting and we felt good. Then, pretty soon everyone on the team wanted to get in on it and it just sort of evolved. We do it on the bench now, too.

“It keeps us relaxed. Even in the most tense, pressure situations we do it and it keeps us loose. It’s like, ‘Hey, we can do this.’

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“Now, every team we play is doing it.”

At first, Fresno State Coach Margie Wright wasn’t sure she liked all this celebrating. “I like to let my players be themselves as long as it doesn’t come out in a negative way,” she said. “When this started her freshman year, a lot of the older players didn’t know how to handle it and I wasn’t too happy to see them make a mistake and then do the handshake.

“But no one is more competitive than Martha and she showed me that it wasn’t a way to laugh off a mistake, it was a way to release the feelings players usually repress. And that’s a very positive action.”

It certainly seems to be working for the Bulldogs. They are 56-13 this season and the No. 2-ranked team in the nation going into the West Regionals scheduled Friday and Saturday at a site to be determined Monday.

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Don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs--whose 1,017 average attendance leads the country for the second year in a row--end up with some more home games this season. And they will gladly thank crowd-pleaser Noffsinger for yet another contribution. Talk about home-field advantages. There’s nothing else in softball to compare to a 3,000-strong gathering of devoted, vocal Red Wave boosters.

“All the stuff Martha does works for the crowd and it works for us because she knows just how to ease the tension,” said Stokes, who has roomed with Noffsinger for four years. “I’m really kind of intense and I’ll come out to the mound in the late innings of a big game and I’ll be saying things like, ‘OK, let’s be tough. Let’s bear down,’ and Martha will say, ‘Oh, shut up.’

“Then everyone will laugh and we’ll be relaxed.”

And then they usually win.

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Opposing pitchers tend to find Noffsinger less humorous, however. She recently established the NCAA career hits record (320) and has a .387 batting average.

There wasn’t much pressure involved as she “chased” the record, considering she had eclipsed the mark by more than a dozen hits before the NCAA statistics department, after some extensive research, officially recognized her as the all-time hits leader. Brenda Woodward had 288 career hits at Texas-Arlington in 1983-86.

Noffsinger has Fresno career records in batting average (.337), hits, runs (151), sacrifices (88) and at-bats (949). She was co-Big West player of the year and an all-College World Series selection last season as the Bulldogs lost to UCLA in the championship game for the second consecutive year.

Noffsinger was not on either the first or second All-America teams, however, an omission that infuriates Wright.

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“Martha took the snub much better than I did,” Wright said. “I try to be very objective about these things and if better players are picked over mine, I never say a word.

“Let’s just say Martha’s statistics speak for themselves and knowing the impact she’s had on this team’s success, that made it doubly frustrating.”

Noffsinger just smiles and shrugs. She says team honors far outweigh personal glory. You’ve heard it before, but when she says it, you believe it.

“Sure, it was a little disappointing,” she said, “but I don’t know of any individual awards that I wouldn’t trade for a national championship. You can take an All-American plaque home and show it to your kids some day, but a national championship you can share and that’s so much more fun.”

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Noffsinger’s team-oriented attitude has helped her gain great individual success. Her unselfish approach to batting, for instance, has made her into a downright nuisance at the plate.

She controls the bat with the same poise she handles a crowd during a rain delay. Once a switch-hitter, she now bats exclusively from the left side. With her speed and that extra step toward first, every ground ball is a potential infield single.

She has become the master of the run-and--slap technique, a sort of swinging drag bunt. The batter actually steps toward first before making contact with the ball. She’s also an expert bunter. Barry Smith, Fresno’s assistant sports information director, estimates that more than 200 of Noffsinger’s 320 career hits never left the infield.

“Martha’s the hardest kind of hitter to pitch to,” said sophomore Terry Carpenter, an All-American pitcher for the Bulldogs who was also Noffsinger’s teammate at Edison High. “She has so many options. She can bunt or run-and-slap or hit for power.”

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Well, maybe not a lot of power. She has hit just one ball over the fence in her career at Fresno.

“I was a freshman and I was sprinting into second when the shortstop told me it was over the fence,” Noffsinger said. “I said, ‘No way!’ But then I saw everyone cheering and laughing at me, so I knew it was really gone. Nice home-run trot on my only homer, huh?”

One day soon, Martha Noffsinger, the softball player, the embodiment of Bulldog softball, will be gone, too. Who said the fun never stops?

No more dancing in the rain. No more wails echoing across the field.

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For Bulldog fans--and especially Wright--the silence will be sickening.

“I’d seen her play a lot during the summer when she was in high school and I really wasn’t surprised to see her come in here as a freshman and be an immediate leader,” Wright said. “Martha’s one in a million. I don’t see any young players out there that have the same kind of whole package, the talent and the personality.

“We’ve talked about life after softball and making sure that you don’t start feeling sad until it’s over. You want to go out in style. But Martha’s got so much going for her, she’ll be just as successful in whatever she does as she is out here.”

They held Senior Day last Sunday and Noffsinger was duly honored by fans and teammates alike. She ran through rows of saluting teammates with a yellow rose in her teeth and playfully turned away when Dever tried to give her a kiss. She never let down the happy clown facade, but she said there were some tears underneath the makeup.

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“It was hard because I got so many cards and gifts that all said, ‘Thank you,’ and I wanted to be able to say, ‘No, thank you .’

“I’ve been working hard at keeping it all in perspective. We won the Big West, but we still have a regional and the World Series to go to reach all three of our goals.

“I’ll be fine until the team banquet on June 3, then I’ll probably lose it there. It’s sad to think it’s ending, but my life is really just beginning.”

Noffsinger will still be on campus for at least another year while she gets her teaching credential. She wants to teach elementary school--"second to fourth grade,” she says--and, considering the depth of her dedication and that reserve of verve, there’s little doubt she will be an inspiration for a generation of future students.

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Let’s just hope she decides against serenading them on their birthdays.


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