Truth is, Lexi Betancourt wasn’t even planning on being here right now. The Charlotte pitcher who took a redshirt sophomore year while recovering from injury earned her bachelor’s degree in exercise science last May.
She took her MCAT (Medical College Admission Test). She pondered medical school.
Her plan all along - ever since she needed surgery on her right shoulder for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2013 and had to miss the entire season - was to leave the 49ers softball team with the class she began with.
But somehow, last year, she began questioning her definitive decision. She talked with her coaches.
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And Betancourt opted to return for another year -- which has sparked a historic run for the 49ers.
Charlotte nearly equaled its best start in school history last week, falling one victory short of the 12-0 start the 2007 team accomplished. Through the streak, Betancourt earned Conference USA Pitcher of the Week, and began with an unblemished 7-0 record.
After a couple stumbles in the Citrus Classic in Orlando last weekend and a 6-5 loss at N.C. State on Wednesday, Charlotte now is 12-3 , and Betancourt is 7-2 to start her final season as the 49ers ace. She has a 1.68 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings.
And Charlotte coach Aimee DeVos is grateful for every time she can scribble “Betancourt” in as her team’s starting pitcher.
“Everybody on this team knows the importance of her in the lineup,” DeVos said. “That’s not putting her on a pedestal. It’s just what she’s earned. She’s earned that respect of her teammates and Conference USA, alike. They understand who Lexi Betancourt is as a pitcher.”
Last season, Betancourt was second-team All-Conference USA while going 18-20 with a 3.33 ERA. She also made the Conference USA All-Academic team with a 3.89 GPA.
But this season has been an entirely new experience for Betancourt. The 49ers feature a team with just two seniors -- and six freshmen and two transfers. Light on experience, Charlotte has had to lean on Betancourt more than ever early this season.
She now stands 215 strikeouts away from holding Charlotte’s all-time strikeout record -- a mark she views as lofty but achievable. Emily Jeffery holds the all-time strikeout record with 782 from 2008-10.
“I always try to set goals that are much higher than I’ll probably reach, and just kind of strive for those,” said Betancourt, who is from Garner. “So, I had set a goal that was much above what the record was, anyway, before I even kind of knew.
“I expect a lot out of myself in general all the time, that’s just the kind of person I am. The record wasn’t really part of that. But when I found that out, it was just an incentive, I guess.”
To get there, Betancourt will have to continue bonding with her new catcher, Becca Shipper. Shipper, a sophomore transfer from 2015 NCAA champion Florida, is the first new catcher Betancourt has had in four years; she spent her entire Charlotte career before this season throwing to Jackie Kleinsmith, who graduated.
Shipper, who was named Conference USA Player of the Week the same week Betancourt earned her conference pitcher honor, leads the 49ers with a .568 average. She’s a utility player who has been paired with Betancourt as catcher for all but one game.
“I really appreciate her mental aspect of the game,” Betancourt said. “I think we mesh really well in that sense. … I think we have a chemistry that came really fast, just like the rest of the team.”
All of it’s unexpected -- including Betancourt’s return this season in the first place.
But with Betancourt in the circle, DeVos likes her young team’s chances.
“Lexi is a big-game player,” DeVos said. “She lives for that game. … I haven’t seen her have that fall-off or letdown through the course of a conference season or our 56-game schedule. She doesn’t have that. She is just probably at her best when the game’s on the line.”