-- SAN MARCOS, Texas -- Cat Osterman was not the reason Randi Rupp chose to play softball at Texas State. When Rupp committed to attend the school that sits about halfway between Austin and San Antonio, she didn't know it would later hire one of the most accomplished aces in the sport's history -- not to mention one of her favorite players -- as its pitching coach.
Rupp had reason to believe she was still dreaming when she woke one morning soon after the school announced the hire to find an introductory text message from Osterman. It's not every morning that an Olympic gold medalist introduces herself to a fan in such a manner.
"Growing up, it was all about Cat Osterman and Jennie Finch," said Rupp, who is now the Bobcats' sophomore ace. "Those have always been the two big idols, especially for me, pitching-wise, I've always looked up to them. Even when we'd see them at different venues, it was like, 'Oh, there's Cat Osterman.' She's just a celebrity, especially in the softball world."
Although it would be some time before they met face to face at the beginning of Rupp's freshman year, more texts from her new coach followed, messages Randi archived like souvenirs. She responded only after the kind of careful scrutiny usually reserved for international diplomacy, lest she embarrass herself by typing the wrong thing. She sometimes sought approval on replies from her twin sister, Sara.
Unwilling to indulge her twin's sudden attention to syntax, Sara invariably told her to knock it off. The response was fine. Obsessing about it was silly.
It is sometimes a sister's responsibility, like that of a catcher to a pitcher, to provide the unvarnished truth.
And so began a triumvirate, now in its second year, unlike any other in college softball.
When time is called during a Texas State game and pitcher, catcher and pitching coach gather in the circle, the faces looking at Randi are those of her twin and one of her idols. She can't imagine playing without one. She never imagined she would play for the other. It would be difficult to have it better.
Around the time that Osterman took a year off from college to win a gold medal with Team USA in the 2004 Olympics, her future battery began to take shape in Mont Belvieu, Texas, about an hour east of where Osterman grew up in the Houston area. Signed up for pitching lessons together, Randi and Sara had different reactions to the experience. But because she needed something to do while Randi pitched, Sara caught. She never stopped.
No matter who is in the circle, Sara can relay the signals from Osterman, frame a pitch to get a favorable call from the umpire and jog to the circle to offer words of encouragement. That's the job. But there is a more nuanced understanding at work when her sister is holding the ball.
"With Randi, I can just be honest, and she can either take it or walk away, and I won't be scared of if I said something wrong," Sara said. "With the other pitchers, it takes me a little while to be able to know what to say. With Randi, it comes easy because we've been doing it so long."
Except for the familial ties, it is not unlike the connection Osterman developed with Megan Willis. The two played together for more than a decade, first at the University of Texas and then in various professional settings from Florida to Japan. They forged arguably the sport's most well-known battery.
"They have a connection," Osterman said of the twins. "Randi knows Sara is working hard for her, and Sara knows how Randi ticks. It's very similar to Megan and I. Sara can call time and go out there and tell Randi what she needs to hear, even if it's not what she wants to hear."
Although she only recently retired as a player, the role Osterman occupies in this dynamic isn't new to her. She was an assistant at Division II St. Edward's University for three seasons and spent three seasons at DePaul. Texas State coach Ricci Woodard said she first reached out to Osterman about coaching nearly a decade ago. She kept in touch and tried again the spring before the Rupps arrived. There was hesitation, as at the time, Osterman was still playing in National Pro Fastpitch and hoped to see things through with the senior class at St. Edward's. But Woodard knew what she had in Randi, a rare prize for a mid-major program, and she wanted the incoming pitcher to work with Osterman from the start.
As such, on a recent blustery Saturday a week before the regular season, having pitched to season-ticket holders offered a refund if they hit a home run against her (none came close), there was Osterman in the dugout of an otherwise empty stadium keeping watch over the Rupps in a scrimmage and taking the next step of her career.
"For as intense as I was as a player, I'm not near as intense as a coach," Osterman said. "I spell out exactly what I expect from them, but I also know the command I have is not -- I get frustrated that it's not as easy for everyone, but I know it's not as easy for everyone."
That last sentiment, of course, is the cornerstone of a conundrum that exists in seemingly every sport, the idea that the greatest players often become mediocre coaches. The thinking goes that the likes of Magic Johnson or Ted Williams, to pick two who famously tried and failed, can no more teach those without their gifts than a physicist can explain quantum mechanics to a dog. The two parties simply don't speak the same language.
It might frustrate Osterman, as she noted, but the more years she pitched and the more she saw the results of the unique movement she was able to exert on softballs, the more she realized the uniqueness of her physical skills. The other part of the disconnect comes from whatever it is that pushes a person to use those physical skills in relentless pursuit of a single goal. To expect college students to exhibit that near-maniacal focus is to invite frustration.
"That's been a little bit more of a challenge," Osterman said. "The mental side is something that was a little more innate with me, just because I was a competitor in anything. But for me, I just constantly talk to them and try to break it down -- not to the cliché of one pitch at a time, but it is. It's one battle at a time. You're trying to throw this pitch to the best of your ability and not let the hitter hit it hard. And then we're going to go on to the next one. We're essentially having a hundred-something battles in a game, and we need to be ready for that."
Case in point was the one-sided conversation between Osterman and Rupp in a game early the past season, after the pitcher let one mistake contaminate her focus and compound into more mistakes.
"I had given up a couple of home runs, and I tend sometimes to get sassy," Rupp said. "Sometimes I do let my emotions get to me. So she had walked out there, very calmly, and just said, 'Get it together. Snap out of it. Let's go.' And I have never seen her just so stern about anything, so I was like, 'Oh, crap, I've pissed her off.'
"She's not going to sit there and yell and holler. She's there to make you better. If she wants something changed, she's going to tell you."
After a freshman season in which she had a 2.70 ERA and 293 strikeouts in 249 1/3 innings, one of the best strikeout rates in the nation, Randi completed the first two weeks of her sophomore season with a 0.84 ERA and almost identical strikeout rate.
But regardless of her improvement as a pitcher, and however much of that we should ascribe to coaching, Randi Rupp is in for an experience of a lifetime.
Her sister catches the pitches. Her idol calls the pitches. And she doesn't sweat the texts anymore.
"It took a little while to understand and know that I could actually talk to her about anything and ask her questions," Randi said. "I was nervous, very, very nervous, especially coming here and then coming to play for her. But once I got here, she's very easy to talk to, very personable.
"The more I got to hang around her, talk to her, the easier it was. Now I can talk to her about anything -- softball, personal issues, she's always there."