When senior pitcher Marlaina Laubach steps into the circle this weekend for the home opener against Indiana, she’ll be starting the final stretch of her time at Nittany Lion Softball Park.
As the most experienced pitcher and one of a few four-year starters on the roster, the Northampton, PA native is leading Penn State softball’s young group into the next step of its development as the team hopes to land a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
For the leader that she’s become, it was never a guarantee that she would be Penn State’s ace. It wasn’t even a sure thing that she would ever step into the circle for the Nittany Lions.
Laubach was a walk-on to the team in her freshman year, and however surprising it might have been for the local product, she was inserted as the go-to starter from her very first season with the team.
Even to this day, she says her Penn State dreams didn’t have to include softball because she had plans on coming to Happy Valley regardless.
“For me, I came to Penn State because of academics,” Laubach said. “I knew I wanted to play for a bigger program, but I did receive some offers from smaller schools. So, academics was really the deciding factor in it all.”
Laubach didn’t have much of any contact with Penn State softball ahead of enrolling in the school, but her unfamiliarity with the coach wouldn’t be a disadvantage — it was shared by everyone.
Long-time coach Robin Petrini abruptly resigned following the 2013 season and a new leader was at the helm by the time players arrived for fall practice — Amanda Lehotak.
After impressing through her initial opportunities with the team and becoming a fixture in Lehotak’s pitching rotation during the opening weeks of the season, Laubach settled in as the No. 1 starter by Big Ten play that year.
It was a matter of consistency that stood out for the coach above anything else, and that still holds true to this day.
“The greatest thing about [Laubach] is that you pretty much always know what you’re going to get,” Lehotak said. “Now, she’s physically better and mentally better, but if I show you film freshman year to senior year, you wouldn’t be able to tell me which year it is.”
Through four seasons with the team, Laubach has grown and developed from a pitcher that struggled to deal with the top competition of the Big Ten to one that can take down the best batters in the nation.
Now it’s her job to help along the young pitching staff, and she’s more than willing to accept the task.
“At first it was kind of bestowed upon me,” Laubach said. “Now, being a leader, it’s by choice. I’ve been there before, so I know it’s tough to adjust to the college game.”
With sophomore Madison Seifert and freshman Madey Smith getting a number of big starts this year, Laubach has been crucial for getting them ready to compete at this level.
“[Laubach’s] been an awesome leader, on the field, off the field, holding the team accountable,” Lehotak said. “She says ‘this is what I did, where I failed. Don’t do this. I did this. Look for this.’ The conversation for them is slowly starting to turn to conference play. She’s having those conversations of what you can expect.”
As she heads into the final games of her career, her focus is solely on getting this team its first postseason bid in her time at Penn State.
For her, what happens after the season is over can wait. There isn’t a precise plan, but the next two months will be the end of her softball career — having turned down an offer to play in Europe.
The psychology major plans on attending graduate school, but expects to take a gap year before doing so.
Regardless of what’s next or how much time she has left on the field, Lehotak thinks nothing but good things are ahead.
“Culture-wise, she’s having a phenomenal senior year,” Lehotak said. “Pitching-wise, I don’t think we’ve seen the best from her just yet.”