Halfway through her collegiate career, Val Suto looked like she wouldn’t amount to much as a hitter for Seton Hall University. But careers must be based on a full body of work and, that being the case, Suto finished with the kind of overall performance that most expected when she graduated from Nottingham High School in 2013.
The speedster finished with a career average of .304 in 189 games (149 starts), a mark she hoisted up from .198 after her sophomore year.
There was a reason, however, why she hit .125 in a part-time role as a freshman and .211 as a full-time starter the following season. Coach Paige Smith, who recruited Suto to Adelphi out of high school and then asked her to come to South Orange when she got the Pirates job, wanted her to change her approach at the plate.
“When you go into college as a freshman, there’s somewhat of an expectation you may not play because you’re new, and you don’t have the skills developed yet that the rest of your team has,” said Suto, a talented artist who recently graduated with a degree in graphic design. “But that year was a big developmental year. My coach wanted me to hit a different way. That was just me kind of re-learning how to go through my slapping motion. It took a long time for me to be able to figure that out.”
When Suto slapped, she dragged her front foot back and then crossed over, but Smith wanted no drag at all. It became something that Suto spent hours working on and thinking about.
“I was thinking too much about how to do it, rather than just hitting the ball,” she said. Since I learned how to do it by dragging the foot, it was hard to break the habit. I focused on not dragging the foot and then along with that you have to do to get the rest of your motion comfortable, too. It wasn’t a huge thing, but it was something that took me a little while to pick up on.”
That summer she joined the renowned Brakettes travel team in Connecticut and focused on her new swing.
“I saw a ton of pitching, and I figured it out, so when I came back my sophomore year I felt comfortable in the box again,” Suto said.
The new swing did not pay immediate dividends, but Suto still worked her way into the starting lineup and continued to grind things out in order to improve. That led to an explosion her junior year, when she hit .364 with 36 runs scored and 30 stolen bases. She tied the Seton Hall season record for hits with 64.
‘I put in a lot of time and effort into getting where I am.’
Of the things Suto is most proud of, one is working her way into the starting lineup after not seeing much time as a freshman, she said.
“I put in a lot of time and effort into getting where I am,” Suto said. “And last year, unfortunately, I didn’t break it, but to tie the record for hits in a season, it was really cool to be right up there.”
Suto was not just self-aggrandizing when talking about her work ethic. Pirates teammate and fellow senior Lauren Fischer, a travel teammate growing up and a high school opponent playing for Robbinsville, feels it is her trademark.
“Val’s awesome,” Fischer said. “Val’s probably one of the hardest working people that I’ve ever met. Everyone who has ever played with her and been around her knows that and respects her for that. She has a really strong attention to detail. You can see that in everything she does, whether it’s her artwork or softball.
“She doesn’t take a second off. When we’re at practice, she’s completely focused all the time, always looking to do extra work. I think Val breaking through her junior year is an attribute to her hard work and definitely putting in the work over the summer.”
Suto’s average dipped to .309 this past spring, mostly because she was asked to perform a new role and sacrifice herself for the team. She hit leadoff, second, ninth and a few other spots, but the job was normally the same.
“Usually when I’m up, there was somebody on base,” she said. “My job isn’t to hit them in, it’s to move them up. So if I made productive outs, put the ball in play and moved the runners, then that was OK, I did my job. I moved around the lineup but no matter where I was, there was usually someone on base. I may not have had the average I wanted, but I think I did a good job for where I was put in the lineup.”
‘All of the experiences teach you something, you get to have fun playing along the way, get better as a player.’
Her offensive performance was typical of Suto, who always put the team first. Fischer was asked to play outfield for the first time in her life last year. Suto, who went from shortstop to center in high school, showed her friend how it’s done.
“I never played there before, and another girl who played outfield it was her first year, and Val was the first person to help you out and teach you and explain to you,” Fischer said. “She helped me in the outfield more than anyone else because she was always willing to answer my questions during practice or just take an extra second to explain to me why we would do something. There’s only so many coaches and so little time, so Val is always willing to help.”
Fischer and Suto roomed together in their freshman seasons, and their decade-long friendship helped both transition smoothly to college.
“It was cool having her here,” Suto said. “We didn’t have to meet somebody during the awkward stage. We were already friends. Sharing the experience of high school ball and travel ball together is also something we always talk about. We have basically the same mindset on how to play the game, what we want to do and see in the game. It’s really cool to have her as a teammate to talk about things.”
The two friends will go their separate ways professionally. Fischer graduated with a marketing degree, but makes no secret of the fact she wants to be a softball coach. Suto, who was a slapping instructor at a facility near campus, does not want to run her own team, but wouldn’t mind being a developmental coach and giving individual instruction working clinics.
She plans on playing for the Brakettes—the nation’s oldest softball program which has produced 12 Olympians—for one more summer before looking for a graphic design job in the fall. Suto loves to draw and paint freehand but did not pursue that avenue “because I don’t think there’s a ton of money unless you’re a really famous artist.” But she combines her fine art into her graphic designs, as she will draw something and then design it on the computer.
Unlike many athletes, who find their sport a release from their major, Suto was the other way around.
“I think art is more of a release from softball,” she said. “Only because softball is every day for a certain amount of hours. Especially the last few weeks with final exams; I don’t do a test but I have a final presentation of my artwork. So, yes, I enjoy being at softball, but at the same time I’m like, ‘I really want to go home and do my artwork.”
Suto looks back on the past four years with fond memories. She still gets a kick out of the fact that her softball ability paid for her education. And while softball was something special, it was the entire experience that she embraces.
“I met a lot of cool people, especially in my major,” Suto said. “I met a lot of good professors and people who have really helped me. That part of school was really fun, especially this year I really to got to hone in on my art skills and design skills.
“With softball I’ve grown as a player and person. All of the experiences teach you something, you get to have fun playing along the way, get better as a player. But I think as a whole all of the experiences I had in college have taught me a lot and I’ll take it on with me for the rest of my life.”