By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — When it comes to softball, University of Iowa junior Mia Ruther enjoys being in a pickle.
Not the ball yard game of pickle where runners are trapped between two bases, rather, she thrives under pressure with the result of a game in the balance.
“I like being in tough situations with my teammates,” Ruther said. “It puts you in the moment. That’s what the game is all about, getting excited about little things.”
Hawkeye softball fans are excited about their new shortstop, an in-state product who arrived in Iowa City after dominating the junior college ranks at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). She played five seasons at Burlington (Iowa) High School, batting a combined .437 and averaging 39 runs and 14 stolen bases per season.
Those are flashy numbers for someone who was essentially overlooked during the recruiting process.
“I was never super-focused on getting recruited for softball or sports in general,” Ruther said.
Still, during her prime recruiting season as a high school junior, she batted .542 with 50 runs and 17 stolen bases. She was named second-team All-State in Class 5A. At some point, Bob Ligouri, head coach at DMACC, exalted the virtues of his program in an email to Ruther’s father, Brent.
“That sparked it,” Ruther said. “I had no interest from state schools. The other school I was looking at was Iowa Central, and that was pretty much it.”
In her two seasons at DMACC, the Bears went 100-10 and twice finished third at the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II Tournament. A two-time first-team All-American, Ruther was named to the World Series All-Tournament Team as a sophomore in 2019.
That’s when small-time Iowa living paid off for the Hawkeyes. Renee Gillespie, who took over as Iowa’s head coach in June of 2018, is from Danville, Iowa. That town is less than 12 miles as the crow flies northwest of Burlington.
“There were connections because her family knows my family,” Ruther said.
Three months after Gillespie was named Iowa’s head coach, the Hawkeyes hosted DMACC in a fall exhibition at Pearl Field. After the game, the coach from Danville offered the student-athlete from Burlington a scholarship.
“We wish we had nine players like her,” Gillespie said of Ruther. “She is a player’s player with the speed and ability to make things happen on the field. She has unbelievable hands and an unbelievable understanding of the game.”
Ruther started playing softball in a city recreation league when she was 10-years-old. She took up slap-hitting three or four years later, and it wasn’t until high school when she joined a local travel team. In five years of high school softball, her teams combined for a 99-94 record.
All the while, Ruther assumed a ho-hum attitude toward playing at the next level. She capitalized on her opportunity at DMACC and intends to do the same at Iowa.
The Hawkeyes won four games during the season-opening Kickin’ Chicken Classic in Conway, South Carolina, from Feb. 7-9. Ruther led the way at the plate, going 8-for-15 (.533). She was perfect on 11 defensive chances at shortstop and in right field, the first time she has played outfield in college.
“Her versatility is important to us,” Gillespie said. “Our depth at each position is strong, so being able to get her in the lineup where we can utilize her slapping and speed is going to be important. If we have someone who can’t make a shift from second base to shortstop, she is one that can, and still fill in in the outfield whenever we need her.”
In the final inning of the final game against Virginia Tech on Feb. 9, Ruther’s fondness of pressure was on display. With Iowa on defense in the top of the eighth inning, Ruther accounted for the first two outs with an assist and putout. With one out in the bottom of the inning, she collected her third hit of the game that eventually plated Taylor Ryan for the winning run in a 4-3 decision.
“In those situations, my head is out of it. I’m not thinking, I’m playing,” Ruther said. “That’s what makes it most fun — you’re thinking about what you’re supposed to do next, but you’re not thinking about ‘Is the ball going to come to me?’ ‘Can I make this play?’ You’re just thinking about the situation.”
Iowa (7-2 overall) won three games at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge from Feb. 14-16 in Atlanta. The Hawkeyes play five games at the Hawaii Invitational from Feb. 21-23 in Honolulu.
Ruther, who leads the team in hits (10), isn’t the vocal type, but when she is on a diamond she describes her mindset as intense. Her vision is team success.
“My only goals are team goals,” Ruther said. “We have a good team and we can win a lot of games this year. I support the coaches and what they are doing — they deserve to have a winning season to jump-start the program.”