Star Quality

April 14, 2009

Stanford, Calif. - In three years together as Stanford's softball battery, catcher Rosey Neill still hasn't completely figured out pitcher Missy Penna.

'I don't think it's possible,' Neill said.

Perhaps that's because there's so much to fathom. After all, didn't Penna believe her bike was stolen and then find it five months later, in the same place, and still locked?

And wasn't that Penna climbing the tree behind the post office by Tressider Union, picking oranges?

And didn't she describe some of her hobbies as, 'living in the wild' and 'walks with no predetermined destination?'

'She's a very unique person,' Stanford coach John Rittman said. 'She enjoys life, and she gets the most out of it.'

And she can pitch.

Penna has broken just about every pitching record in Stanford history and is the most prolific strikeout pitcher in the country, having long surpassed 1,000 for her career. Heading into this weekend's action, the senior from Miami, Fla., is 25-3 with a 0.90 earned-run average, 14 shutouts, and 247 strikeouts in 193 2/3 innings.

On April 3, Penna earned her 106th career victory, becoming the winningest pitcher in Stanford history and adding to a ledger of career, season and single-game records she already possesses.

'There are a lot of pitchers that throw harder than Missy,' Rittman said. 'Missy throws hard, but what makes Missy special and unique is the fact that her pitches break. When she's on, her movement is phenomenal.'

Let Neill describe it.

'The one thing Missy can do that no one else can is throw the worst pitch ever and it'll still break eight inches,' Neill said.

For example, Penna will throw a pitch called a 'peel drop,' but sometimes gets so excited she rolls over the ball too far on the delivery. The result is a pitch headed toward Neill's shoulder, and drops to her ankles.

'It's the dirtiest thing, but it's not really a good pitch,' Neill said. 'Yet, she's struck out many a player on that pitch. There's no way to hit it.'

If that's Penna's worst pitch, imagine her best. That would be her dropball, a pitch that crosses the plate at the batter's knees and then dips into the dirt.

'It sounds mean, but we get to make some of the best hitters in the game look like buffoons,' Neill said.

Despite her success, Penna can hardly be defined by softball. If fact, she can't be defined by much at all. That's because Penna is a true original, both on and off the diamond. Her mother can't visualize Missy ever sitting behind a desk, and Missy herself - a construction management and engineering major with a 3.49 cumulative grade-point average - can't see a future confined within four walls.

But whatever endeavor Penna undertakes, she will bring a gift of making others comfortable. It starts with her laugh, one that can simultaneously disarm and reassure.

Soon enough, Penna seems like a lifelong friend. At least that's how a Kazakh student who befriended Penna felt. When Penna returned to the dugout after retiring the side in a recent game, she found her foreign friend sitting on the team bench amid a collection of puzzled faces.

'She wanted to see me,' Penna said. 'It was so sweet.'

No pretense, no ego, no script. Just Missy.

'She has a good heart,' said her mother, Lori Penna. 'She never, ever has anything unkind to say about people.'

Perhaps that's why Lori was not surprised when she picked up the morning paper in Florida and saw her daughter's name in print, and it had nothing to do with softball. Rather, a squatter had been staying in Penna's dorm room for eight months pretending to be a Stanford student.

Claiming she didn't get along with her roommate and needing a place to stay, 18-year-old Azia Kim found compassion in Penna and Penna's roommate, and was allowed to sleep on the floor.

Penna began to wonder what was up when she returned from road trips to find her bed made, a sure sign it had been used. Missy, you see, never makes her bed.

When residence hall associates became suspicious, authorities were contacted and Kim was escorted away. Soon after, news of the ruse went coast to coast.

'That was the first time I heard about it,' Lori Penna said. 'And then I was getting phone calls from The Today Show and Entertainment Weekly.'

Missy was perplexed, but not for the obvious reasons.

'I remember thinking it was strange,' Missy said. 'She couldn't get along with her roommate? I remember sleeping one morning and my roommate woke me up and said, `Azia's not real.'

'At the time, it seemed odd, but everyone has their own little quirks. I was more surprised she lied the whole time.'

Missy sees the best in people. If anything defines her, Missy hopes it is her strong Christian faith. On one road trip, she wanted the team bus to wait because she had just discovered a nearby Christian book store and wanted to go inside.

Robert and Lori Penna, who own a health food store, raised their large family on an acre and a quarter, on a plot ringed with fruit trees and open enough for just about any kind of athletic activity. For five years, the family did not even own a TV, not because of any bias, but because it didn't need one.

Two of Missy's siblings played collegiate sports and her father wrestled at University of Florida. It was in this environment that Missy honed her competitive edge, becoming a three-sport star at Southwest Miami High. Lori recalls driving on family vacations, looking in the rearview mirror and seeing flailing arms and legs as Missy wrestled her brothers.

'She had no fear of anybody,' Lori said.

Home-schooled through fifth grade, Missy found the biggest adjustment to conventional academic life was getting used to standing in line.

'In our family, we never had that,' she said. 'It's always the first to the front seat of the car, the bathroom, the table. If you're not ready for dinner, you miss out. You get the leftovers.'

When one of Missy's friends came over for dinner, several kids asked the friend to bring them some water. When she returned to the table, the girl's entire plate of spaghetti was eaten, while several Pennas looked on innocently.

How does this translate to softball? Just watch Penna in the circle.

'I love the competitive nature of it,' she said. 'It's me versus the batter. Who's going to come out on top? Every pitch is like that. Every batter. Every game.

'I like being pushed to the limit, seeing where I can get to. Every day, I'm trying to get to a new level.'

Neill may not have a handle on her friend's personality, but she doesn't need to. She knows enough.

'She's one of those quality human beings,' Neill said. 'There's really no other way to put it. She's a good person, she works really hard, and she's an awesome teammate. That's who she is.'

-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics Media Relations

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