“I don’t like being told no”: Hannah McGonigle kept the faith; now she prepares for an NCAA softball career

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 07-01-2023 6:36 PM

Most people like to prove others wrong. Hannah McGonigle relishes the chance.

When she had her first softball pitching lesson at 11 years old, she threw the ball straight up into the ceiling over and over again. Jen Boyden, most recently her coach at Bow High School who caught that lesson, told Stacy Boyden they might need to stop taking the McGonigle’s money. A couple years later, McGonigle played on a regional all-star team. The coaches, a few of the players’ dads, told her she’d be their second pitcher and would play a lot; she didn’t throw a single pitch all season.

“That kind of lit a fire under my ass,” McGonigle said of that experience. “People are telling you that you can’t do this, but others are telling you that you can. Who’re you going to listen to?”

She chose to listen to those who believed in her – including the Boydens, as much as they joke about how poorly that first pitching lesson went. It worked out quite well.

This past spring, McGonigle was named Division II Player of the Year by the New Hampshire Softball Coaches’ Association after hitting .500 with 24 RBI and 16 extra-base hits while also striking out 85 hitters in 69.1 innings of work in the circle. She finished her Bow softball career hitting .552 with 11 home runs and just 20 strikeouts compared to 40 walks. In the circle, she pitched 224.2 innings, posted a 1.37 ERA and struck out 293 hitters.

Now, she’s preparing to head off to the University at Buffalo where she’ll join a Division I program just a few years after she questioned whether she was good enough to even think about pursuing this goal at all.

In some sense, she felt justified in doubting herself. After all, her life seemed so different from everyone around her.

She was raised by her mother, Abbie, in a single-parent household. With her mom working all the time just to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head, she didn’t have a parent to go have a catch with or go do tee work with. She had to figure out how to make it work on her own.

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“It was super, super tough because I live in a really wealthy area, so everyone has nice backyards, they’ve got – for the most part – present families,” McGonigle said. “They have batting cages up in their backyard, they have their dad to go catch with their lessons and throw them front toss or put balls on the tee. I didn’t have that.”

“I don’t fault (my mom) at all. She did what she needed to do to make sure I was taken care of, but obviously that does sometimes subtract from the attention to my sports.”

It also meant she had to take the initiative on what she wanted her athletic career to look like, not something that Jen Boyden has seen from many players over her years coaching softball in the area.

“The biggest thing is the things that she’s overcome,” Boyden said about what most prominently stands out about McGonigle’s journey. “All those things that I think a lot of players take for granted that they can just do or they can get pushed to do by a parent, she had to go somewhere else, find somebody to do that with her. … She just never had those easy things. She had to put in a lot of effort even just to go get some swings off a tee.”

“She did not stop”

Stacy Boyden remembers it vividly. McGonigle was 11 years old. She looked her coach in the eye and told her she wanted to play for the Florida Gators.

“At the time, I didn’t really laugh in her face, but I laughed behind the scenes,” Boyden said. “I was like, ‘There’s no way.’”

Based on what she’d seen in some of their early pitching sessions together, the odds seemed heavily stacked toward Boyden winning that bet. But McGonigle went to work.

They found fields to train at all over Pembroke and Bow. When her ninth grade season was wiped out because of COVID-19, she kept plowing ahead. She was at the fields, she was lifting, she was doing anything and everything she could to make herself a better softball player.

It was more than just the physical training, though. There are always players that might be willing to take some extra swings or lift some weights; she wanted to understand why what she was doing would make her better.

“She’s a player that will ask ‘why?’ Not in the annoying kid way, but in an actual, ‘Why am I doing this? How am I doing this? What could I do a little bit better?’” Jen Boyden said. “That really got her ahead of the game because she was very in-tuned with her body, in-tuned with what she was doing, and she’s a perfectionist, so she just wanted to get it 100% right. She would just keep working at it until she did.”

Caitlyn Duquette first met McGonigle when they played together over the summer in 2018, and that drive to perfect her craft distinguished her even then.

“Doesn’t matter if it’s optional or it’s a team lift that you don’t really have to go to or it’s putting in some work in the cages, she’s always there,” Duquette said. “She also helps coach with some of the 12U girls that we had the option to coach. If we have the option or if there is a practice, she’s always going to be there.

“She’s very self-motivated,” Duquette continued. “I think that definitely relates to her ability to play well. She always puts in the work, and she pretty much does everything for herself. She also has a job. She’s always working. She’s always doing everything.”

By 2020, playing Division I softball became a serious conversation. It was really the first time McGonigle had the chance to play against competition outside of the immediate area, and she performed quite well.

She also had a larger incentive to work for this.

“For some girls, it’s like, ‘Softball is my life. I need softball,’ just because they need the structure of softball; softball gives them something to do, something to look forward to,” McGonigle said. “For me, I needed softball because softball was how I was going to pay for college.”

“A period onthat sentence”

Pitching initially seemed to be McGonigle’s best chance of receiving D-I offers. When she’d watch college softball on TV, though, the pitchers could hit 68, 70 miles per hour on the radar gun. She was sitting in the high 50s, low 60s.

“I was kinda stressed about that like, ‘I don’t think I could do this,’” McGonigle remembered. “But then I started to move away from pitching, and I started to get super, super comfortable and confident in my hitting, more comfortable in my fielding, and I was like, ‘Wow, I really have a good chance at this.’”

She sent emails with video of her hitting to a bunch of programs she was interested in. Her form caught the eye of Mike Ruechel, the head coach at Buffalo.

“She does a lot of the things we’re trying to teach,” Ruechel said. “She gets on path, and she stays on path, which increases your margin of error.”

Essentially, the longer the barrel of the bat sits in the zone, the better chance you have as a hitter of making solid contact. With McGonigle already possessing this ability, Ruechel felt she’d make a great fit. Sometimes, he said, it takes three or four years in the program before a player can tailor their swing to his liking.

He watched her in person for a few games last summer and was similarly impressed with what he saw.

“He then took off, and we’re like, ‘Oh God, what happens next?’” Jen Boyden recalled. “It was a really hard in-between.”

Eventually, Ruechel made McGonigle an offer, and she verbally committed last September. It was simultaneously the cherry on top of all the work she’d put into this and also an opening to an even brighter future to an athletic career that’s already featured its fair share of success.

“It had been such a journey at that point,” McGonigle said. “So much blood, sweat, tears and time had gone into this from so many people, not just from me: from my family, from my coaches, from my teammates. This was definitely a group effort, and to know that we could finally put a period on that sentence was just a weight lifted that I didn’t think I had on me.”

Jen Boyden always makes graphics for her players who commit to college softball programs. That text from McGonigle, asking for one of her own, allowed it to all sink in for the first time.

“That’s like the last five years of buildup, (and) it’s actually come to the thing that we’ve wanted it to come to,” Boyden said. “That’s probably the best moment there.”

“Still in awe of her”

It’s hard to know exactly what McGonigle’s first season at Buffalo will look like. She’ll have to adjust to the increased speed of the college game as well as playing in a new environment.

The Bulls starting second baseman from this past season graduated, so there will be an opening to fill. McGonigle played second in high school, so it would be a natural fit. However, Ruechel estimated that only four of his players are currently playing the position they played when they first arrived on campus, so she could wind up playing any number of positions.

“If she can come in and hit right away, she’ll see the field,” he said. “We’re going to look at her potentially competing for a second base spot, and if she hits well but is not that person, we have to find a place where we can put her in the field.”

While Ruechel obviously hopes he’s adding a player who can help his program compete in the Mid-American Conference, he knows that he’s welcoming a player who brings a high-character personality to the locker room.

“Anyone that spoke of her spoke great words of her as a person,” he said. “That’s probably the most important thing when we bring somebody in because whether they’re on the field or not, they’re going to give us a ton of value.”

Surely anyone who’s coached or played with McGonigle will echo that point, aware of the dynamic player and person that she is.

“In some ways I’ve always looked up to her just because she is so good and such a hard worker,” said Duquette, her teammate and one of her closest friends. “I’m so proud of her and really happy for her because I know how hard she worked for this.”

Ask Stacy or Jen Boyden what impresses them most out of all the things McGonigle does well, and you’ll hear the same answer: IQ. Some players might have the raw talent, but coupled with a low softball IQ, their careers won’t go very far.

That IQ became a valuable tool for McGonigle, especially as she worked to help the Boydens give back to the next generation of softball players. She started helping Stacy teach pitching to 8-year-old girls when she was in eighth grade.

“The biggest thing that she did for me and with me was she continually asked how she could help,” Stacy Boyden said.

When Stacy coached her at Bow High School during her sophomore season, she was the team’s only pitcher.

“We couldn’t survive with just one pitcher, (so) she and I actually taught two other girls on the team how to pitch,” Boyden said. “She actually took one of the freshmen (Emma Kelly) and did lessons with her throughout the entire season. It’s stuff like that. She was a second coach the entire time, even as a sophomore.”

For the Boydens, who’ve watched McGonigle grow up before their eyes over the last seven years, it’s a bittersweet moment knowing this is the final summer they’ll be able to coach her. However, it’s also an opportunity to inspire their current players, especially those who might not have all the resources at their disposal, to believe in their abilities to play softball at the D-I level in college.

“I’m still in awe of her,” Stacy said. “I’m just so in awe that she just kept trucking. There were doubters, there were haters and she never let it bother her. I think it bothered Jen and me more, but she knew she had a goal, and she met the goal. I’m so proud of her, and honestly I can’t wait to go watch her.”

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