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Cyrus quickly takes Fitchburg leader role

Cyrus quickly takes Fitchburg leader role

In her first season on the women’s softball team at Fitchburg State, Tori Cyrus (inset) started her preparation two months behind the rest of her teammates.

The Falcons began training in January after their return from winter break. But Cyrus was still suiting up for the women’s basketball team, where she made 15 starts as a freshman in the backcourt.

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Cyrus had less than three weeks to ready herself for the softball season and she worked vigorously, often arriving at the field two hours early to hit off the tee and take ground balls.

Her diligence paid off.

Starting at third base, the 5-foot-4 Everett High graduate led the Falcons with a .368 batting average and 21 RBIs in 42 games, earning co-Rookie of the Year honors in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference. Her hard work was infectious and her teammates followed suit: The Falcons (20-22) advanced to the conference tournament for the first time since 2007.

“I felt I owed it to my team because I should be putting more effort in,” Cyrus said. “I didn’t want to let either of my teams down.”

Per NCAA rules, Cyrus was not allowed to join the softball team until the basketball season was complete, which came Feb. 19 when Fitchburg absorbed a 71-59 loss to Framingham State in the MASCAC quarterfinals.

The Falcons softball team opened its season on March 10 in Kissimmee, Fla., kicking off a 10-game spring trip. Cyrus struggled early, registering just five hits in her first 29 at-bats.

After FSU returned home, however, she went on an eight-game hitting streak. And in the final 32 games, she only failed to record a hit in five games.

“I didn’t do so well in Florida, so I knew I had to pick up something,” said Cyrus, who was a three-sport athlete at Everett High and a two-time captain of the basketball team. “I really think the extra time spent before practice [made the difference]. I wouldn’t have been the player I was this year, and the coaches helped a lot.”

On the basketball court, Cyrus was counted on as a starter, but she leaned on seniors Madeline Merchant and Kelsey Johnston for leadership.

On the diamond, her role was quite different.

Merry McDonald , in her first season as head coach at age 24, did not have a senior on her squad and she immediately identified Cyrus as a leader.

“I worked with her in the fall and knew she was the type to step right in,” McDonald said. “I reassured her she has the personality, and said it’s OK if you’re a freshman to be a leader. That certainly helped spark the team.”

McDonald worried the team would not buy into her philosophy, but admitted it was easier when she could disseminate her message through Cyrus.

“I preached to them that they have to put in more, and it started with [Cyrus],” McDonald said. “Going forward, I had at least four or five girls working before practice. That’s great for me; we’re on the same page. I can talk to her, and it’s easier to deliver the message.”

While balancing the time commitment for two varsity sports was an arduous task, Cyrus said playing basketball helped prepare her for her stellar softball season.

“On the court, I was not that confident in myself,” said Cyrus. “I thought everyone had an extreme amount of talent and was so much bigger. That took a toll on me. I had to put the work in [during softball], and I did better than expected.”

Fitchburg State was eliminated from the MASCAC tourney with a 6-2 loss to Bridgewater State last Saturday. Cyrus went 1 for 3 with an RBI in the game.

Although the Falcons fell short of an NCAA tournament bid, Cyrus said she was happy with her whirlwind of a freshman campaign.

She is already focusing on improving her defense for next season.

“What I learned is no matter what, you can’t give up and you have to be a better player for your team and yourself,” she said.

McDonald said she is glad she has Cyrus as a cornerstone for the next three seasons.

“Moving forward, new recruits will have her set an example and it’s huge for me,” McDonald said. “She’ll be able to explain everything she went through this year. She’s an instant role model.”

Silver for Eichel

A year ago, Jack Eichel made the most difficult decision of his life.

After his freshman year at Chelmsford High, he decided to transfer to the Ann Arbor Pioneer High School in Michigan.

Eichel struggled with leaving behind his close friends and family. But he knew it was a decision he had to make, motivated by his desire to play for USA Hockey’s Under-18 squad, a national development program that has produced more than 60 National Hockey League players, including Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane .

“Since I learned about the program, it was a big goal of mine to make the team,” said the 16-year-old Eichel. “When I had the opportunity, I couldn’t say no. When you look at the track record of what the US team produces, no other program develops hockey players like USA Hockey does. It was tough for me to move away, but it was a sacrifice I felt I had to make to take my game to the next level.”

Last month, the 6-foot-1, 176-pound Eichel helped the United States capture the silver medal at the U-18 World Championships in Sochi, Russia, future site of the 2014 Olympic Games.

After a thrilling 4-3 shoot-out victory against Russia in the semifinals, the United States lost to Canada, 3-2, in the finals. Playing all seven games of the tournament centering either the second or third lines, Eichel recorded a goal and an assist and was plus-3 in his time on the ice.

“We were riding the momentum after a big win over Russia,” Eichel said. “But [Canada] was a tough game.”

Eichel is in an accelerated program that will allow him to graduate from Ann Arbor next spring. He has already verbally committed to attend Boston University on a hockey scholarship for the 2014-2015 season.

“That was kind of the reason I picked BU. It’s near where I grew up, and after coming out here, I’m excited to go back,” Eichel said. “It’s been everything I hoped it to be and more, and it was the most memorable year of hockey in my life. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Campus copy

A tip of the cap to North Andover High grad Mike Cavanaugh , who was named men’s hockey coach at the University of Connecticut on Thursday after a successful 18-year run as Jerry York’s assistant at Boston College. UConn is moving up to the Hockey East for the 2014-15 season. . . . Sean Buckland , a freshman from Lynn, tossed a complete-game, three-hit shutout to lead the Salem State baseball team to the MASCAC tournament title with a 5-0 victory over Westfield State. He earned MASCAC Pitcher of the Week honors. His teammate, Steve Buitkus (Reading), earned MVP honors batting .385 (5-13), with a home run, three runs scored, and three stolen bases in the tourney. . . . Tom Gauger , a senior at Westfield State, finished second in the long jump (6.95 meters) at the Division 3 New England Championships. The Billerica grad earned Division 3 All-New England honors.

Anthony Gulizia can be reached at gulizia.ant@gmail.com.

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