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There’s still a million-dollar question: How is Becker so good? How does she do it?
By James Schapiro
Shannon Becker’s fastball has been terrifying opponents for a long time.
She started out playing softball for the Mahopac Sports Association, where the speed on her pitches set down opposing batters en masse. When she was in second grade, that’s how she met Michelle Della Mura, who would become her catcher and her best friend. A few years later, Becker switched to travel softball, playing for the Empire State Huskies; Della Mura joined her. Soon after that, Becker made the Mahopac High School softball team as an eighth grader, and quickly started drawing attention with a fastball that just kept getting faster.
The next year, Della Mura made the team as well.
A lot has changed since Becker and Della Mura were in second grade, but one thing hasn’t; opponents still don’t enjoy hitting Becker’s fastball. On June 12th of this year, now high school seniors, Della Mura strapped on her catcher’s gear one last time for Mahopac High School, and Becker took the mound. Ten scoreless innings later, Mahopac freshman Ava Lichtenberger poked a walk-off single to beat the North Rockland Raiders and win Mahopac’s first Section 1 championship in school history.
The shutout ensured that Becker’s season-long numbers would remain pristine: 18 complete-game shutouts, and a 0.00 E.R.A. Soon after the championship win, Becker achieved another milestone; she became the first softball player in Lower Hudson Valley history to win the Gatorade New York Player of the Year award twice.
Becker summed up that whirlwind of events in her typically understated way.
“It was a crazy couple of days,” she said.
Mahopac Head Coach Cristina Giansante, who has coached Becker since her eighth-grade season, had a similar view of Becker’s season.
“She’s been insane,” Giansante said.
Becker and Giansante entered the Mahopac High School softball program the same season. Becker was an eighth grader, with off-the-charts raw talent that she hadn’t quite harnessed yet. Della Mura, who joined the team the next season, was still her catcher and working to harness her powerful arm.
“When we were younger, she was kind of all over the place,” Della Mura said. “She just threw fastballs, but they were a little wild.”
But as they watched, Becker matured before their eyes. Each season, she would come back throwing harder, with better control and more movement.
“The progression of her speed and movement on the ball every year…it would be unbelievable,” Giansante said.
Part of that rapid improvement probably came from perhaps the most important element of Becker’s personality: the hardest thing for her to do is nothing.
Becker’s least-favorite activity is taking breaks. She relaxes only when her coaches demand it. Some people look for easy ways to exercise, something quick and easy that they can do and say that they’ve worked out. Becker does the opposite. When she’s asked to take a break, she works as hard as she can for as long as she can, still truthfully say that she’s been easing off a bit.
“I’m taking a break for a week,” she’ll say. “But I’m still going to work out.”
“She’s always doing something,” Giansante said. “She’s already texted me her whole Notre Dame workout schedule. If she’s not at practice, she’s at hitting lessons. If she’s not at hitting lessons, she’s at pitching lessons. If she’s not at pitching lessons, she has her poor father catching her bullpens.”
“I hate them,” Becker said about taking breaks. “I know I need to take them because they’re good for me, but I get so bored.”
Becker drew national attention in the Spring of 2019, when she pitched a “perfect perfect game.” Against Carmel High School, Becker took the mound and faced 21 batters. She struck out every single one. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is perhaps the single most impressive feat a pitcher can accomplish, a feat so incredible that it’s hard to believe it really happened.
While no comprehensive records are available, various outlets reported at the time that New York softball experts believed it was the first “perfect perfect game” in New York State history.
Becker was featured on the local CBS station. ESPN and MSG Network covered her story. Briefly, she was famous. Later that year, in September, she committed to Notre Dame.
“People would see me, and they’d be like ‘that’s the Mahopac pitcher,’” she said. “People would recognize me in stores and stuff.”
Of course, with publicity came some negativity, but Becker quickly learned to tune it out.
“There were a lot of women’s sports jokes,” she said. “I matured very quickly through that process.”
‘We Know Each Other Inside and Out’
In the media, Becker also took care to credit her teammates, and especially her catcher. As she said, “behind every pitcher, there’s always a catcher.” That may always be true, but it was especially true in this case. Becker and Della Mura have a relationship that’s special, even for typical pitcher/catcher batteries.
They met, of course, playing softball. They became especially close when they were in the same sixth-grade class at Mahopac Middle School. Now they were together at school and together on the softball field, which, for them, meant they were together pretty much all the time. For a few years now, they’ve been best friends off the field, a friendship they hope to continue as they head off to college.
Della Mura admits that their topics of conversation can be limited.
“Even when we do hang out,” she said, “we somehow manage to talk about softball.”
But their relationship, Giansante said, hasn’t just been two friends enjoying each other’s company. It’s also helped the team on the softball field.
“Michelle is incredibly smart. One of the smartest people I know,” Giansante said. “She knows Shannon’s movement, and she knows where Shannon’s head’s at and what she’s thinking.”
To prepare for the team’s various opponents, Della Mura watches old videos, and even studies where batters stand when they hit. She knows exactly how Becker’s pitches move, and what they look like when she’s on-point.
“We know each other inside and out,” Becker said. “She knows what I want to throw before I know.”
When Mahopac is preparing to play games against teams they’ve already played, Della Mura watches videos of their previous games, taking notes on each hitter. She writes down where she called each pitch to each batter, and what pitch it was, then studies the batter’s approach, and where they hit each pitch. She also takes note of which pitches they swing at and which pitches they take. Against teams they’ve never played before, on the other hand, she has to figure this all out during the game itself, simultaneously observing batters, remembering minute details about their stances and offensive approaches, and calling the pitches she hopes will beat them.
“She’s a freak behind the plate,” Giansante said. “If you look at the notes she takes, it’s like a crazy person.”
‘I’ve Never Seen Her Get Nervous’
There’s still a million-dollar question: How is Becker so good? How does she do it? Obviously, she has an arm that’s hard to rival — but it takes more than that. Giansante and Della Mura had similar answers.
“I’ve never seen her get nervous,” Della Mura said.
“Most pitchers you come in contact with are complete head cases,” Giansante said. “Shannon was never like that.”
She certainly wasn’t.
Winning the Section Championship — which Mahopac High School had never won before — had been Becker and Giansante’s goal since both had joined the team. Both felt that they had a shot at it in 2020, but then the season was canceled due to COVID. Becker, characteristically, first said that she took two weeks off at the beginning of the pandemic, but added as an afterthought that during her two weeks off, she still worked out and went running.
Becker and Della Mura entered their senior season with one last chance at a title. Becker, of course, was dominant: pitching to Della Mura, she didn’t allow an earned run all season. She struck out 286 batters over 139 innings; her opponents batted .065.
Becker called the championship game “pretty surreal,” and “five years in the making.”
It was also a tear-jerker: it was Becker’s last game with Della Mura, her childhood friend and longtime catcher, behind the plate. But if the occasion was big, Becker barely seemed to notice. She took the mound, and pitched just like she always does — dominantly. Becker pitched ten shutout innings, striking out 18. Della Mura also played a pivotal role: before Mahopac could win in the bottom of the 10th, she tagged out a North Rockland runner trying to score in the top of the inning.
The win was a bittersweet one. Sure it was a championship, and Becker signed autographs after the game for young fans who’d watched. But it was also the last time the pitcher and catcher, also best friends, would pair up and dismantle an opposing lineup.
“We were crying our last game, because it was our last game together,” Becker said. “Our friendship and relationship was really important not only to my success, but the team’s success. She deserves all the credit that I get.”
It was certainly a crazy couple of days. Prom was Friday; the championship was Saturday. Graduation and the team dinner were the next week. But on Sunday, the day after the game, Becker went to the beach. Finally, after a dominant high school career, Becker was doing the one thing she can almost never do. She was taking a break.
Well, sort of.
“I’m taking a little break, pitching-wise,” she said. Then she added: “But I’m still going to work out.”
James Schapiro is a freelance sports writer. His work has been featured in Baseball Prospectus, The Delacorte Review, and Elite Sports NY. He writes the New York Mets newsletter Shea Bridge Report, and has fond memories of visiting his grandparents’ house in Rockland County.
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