No. 9 Maddie Penta celebrates ending the first inning with a strikeout against South Alabama on Friday, March 3.
BY NOAH GRIFFITH
FOR THE OBSERVER
The Auburn softball field is no longer a diamond. It’s a pentagon.
At 20-3 and ranked No. 21 in the country, junior Maddie Penta is a force to be reckoned with if any team hopes to knock off the Tigers.
She has already thrown 62.2 innings this season and allowed her first earned run this week to Georgia Tech. After breaking the sophomore strikeout record last season with 269, she has already fanned over 100 batters this season, ranking top three in the NCAA. She has only allowed 26 hits and only three of them has gone for extra bases, while only walking five.
With 481 career punchouts, Penta sits at fifth in program history on the program strikeout leaderboard, and she doesn’t plan on slowing down. While Penta isn’t focused on those individual accolades, the girl from Chesapeake City, Maryland, is on her way to the throne.
So, just how high is Penta’s ceiling?
“As high as it can go, really, I mean I don’t have any sort of thing I’m reaching for because it’s a team sport, and I just want to be there for my teammates,” Penta said. “My goal is to win every game. You don’t want to look too far down the road. I also don’t want to jinx anything.”
She’s doing a pretty good job of achieving her goal. Penta is 11-0 this season. You can’t lose if you don’t give up any runs. Penta isn’t perfect though, or so she said.
“I just want to be the best I can be every day — show up and do my job,” Penta said. “Be the best teammate I can be. That’s really my goal, honestly. And I try to live by that. Every morning, I wake up and see what I can do for others. And that sounds really cliché and stupid. I’m not perfect, but I try my best.”
Penta hasn’t thrown a perfect game yet, but already has a no-hitter in 2023 and another complete-game shutout in addition to 15 complete games last season. She earned the title of “workhorse” in year two on The Plains with 195 innings pitched, the ninth most in a single season in program history.
Being a workhorse is nothing new to Penta. After throwing 195 innings last season, she led the SEC in ERA (1.76) as well as wins (24).
When Auburn’s season ended in the Clemson Regional last year, Penta gave the team every chance to stay alive. Her campaign ended by being tacked with her 10th loss of the season after giving up a sole run to Clemson in six innings on just three hits. Her effort fell just short, as Clemson’s Valerie Cagle singlehandedly silenced a worn-down Auburn offense in a complete-game shutout.
However, with the addition of Annabelle Widra, two-way player from the University of Michigan, this year feels a bit different. Penta said she doesn’t feel like she’s needed in nearly every game to pull out a win.
“[Widra] is a great addition to our pitching staff,” Penta said. “She’s someone we can rely on to get the job done, so I’m not always having to, you know, be tense — wondering if I’m going in. I’m just happy to have other people I can rely on to win games and not throw out my arm.”
Next to Penta’s 57 scoreless frames, Widra has tossed 37 innings with a 1.14 ERA along with a 49-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That work has earned her a 6-0 record, complementing Penta’s 11-0. Oh yeah, and she has also thrown a no-hitter this year — the same weekend as Penta’s.
If Auburn is to make another playoff run this season, Penta will be ready. Not only will she be more rested, she’s added another pitch to her arsenal — one that she had at her disposal last year, but head coach Mickey Dean wanted her to take the offseason to polish.
“In the offseason, me and coach Dean worked really heavily on spin,” she said. “It’s been a focus over the past few years, but I really focused on rise ball-curveball-drop ball, and I’ve actually been able to develop a quite decent drop ball. I was able to get that fastball and change-up under control last year, so now I’m able to move on to spin pitches. Rise ball is looking great, curveball is still my least favorite pitch and drop ball looks good whenever I do throw it.
“It’s really just about that chess match in your head. Instead of just throwing and, you know, doing what you’re told, thinking ahead instead of just, coach calls the pitch, you throw it, [etcetera].”
In her sophomore year, Penta set program records for starts made in a season (35), consecutive winning decisions (nine), tied Hollie Curie for the second-most wins in a single season in Auburn history, was the first Auburn hurler to surpass 250 strikeouts in a season since Anna Thompson in 2010 and turned in six shutouts and finished the season fifth in strikeouts in Auburn history, an accolade that she has another year and a half to build on.
“[Those accomplishments] mean a lot to me, but again, I don’t want to get too wrapped up in all that stuff,” Penta said. “But you know, it’d be great to see my name in the books or leaderboard one of these days. Again, I’m just doing whatever I can to help the team: being who I am and continuing to get better. If I do that, I will have success.”