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BLACKSBURG — Mackenzie Lawter began her Virginia Tech softball career as a nonscholarship player.

She will end it as a four-year starter.

Lawter is the starting catcher for the second-ranked Hokies, who will be the top seed in next week’s ACC tournament. She is a valued member of a team that is no doubt heading for its third straight NCAA tournament appearance.

“It’s really special,” Lawter said of her rise in the program. “It’s just kind of a testament to this program, this coaching staff, … how they’ve been able to help me … improve since I got here.”

Lawter does not have one of the better batting averages on the team, but coach Pete D’Amour doesn’t mind because of her contributions behind the plate.

“Defensively, you can’t replace her,” D’Amour said.

D’Amour trusts Lawter so much that he lets Lawter and the Tech pitchers call their own pitches during the games.

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And how often does ace Keely Rochard shake off Lawter’s sign and throw something else?

“Not too often,” Lawter said.

‘Very interesting’

Lawter grew up in Halifax County.

“It’s a really close-knit community and it’s a really special place to grow up,” she said.

She was drawn to softball because her older sisters played the sport and because her dad used to play college baseball for Longwood.

Her father coached her in travel ball until she was 14 years old.

“He’s the reason I … love the game,” Lawter said. “It’s always been something we kind of bonded over.”

She became a catcher when she was 9 years old.

“Nobody else wanted to catch,” she said.

Lawter became enamored with the position.

“I liked the element of just being involved in every play and just the thinking behind it,” she said. “I might get bored out there in the outfield. Catching, I definitely like it because it keeps me involved. It’s very interesting.”

At the age of 14, Lawter joined the Williamsburg Starz, a travel-ball team that included Rochard and several other current Hokies.

Lawter said then-Hokies coach Scot Thomas noticed her while he was eyeing some of her Starz teammates.

Virginia Tech and Elon wanted her, but as a nonscholarship player. She picked the Hokies in the fall of her junior year at Halifax County High School.

The following summer, Thomas brought up the idea of Lawter graduating from high school a semester early and joining the Hokies for the 2018 season to fill a need at backup catcher. That fall, Lawter agreed to graduate early. She enrolled at Tech in January 2018.

“It was a tough decision, but it was also looking at it through the lens of what an opportunity this would be,” Lawter said.

‘She reads my mind’

Thomas lost his job after the 2018 season. D’Amour was hired to replace him.

It didn’t take D’Amour long to decide that Lawter should be his starting catcher.

“Pitchers like throwing to her,” he said. “All the intangibles that catchers have, she’s got them all.”

D’Amour also awarded Lawter a partial scholarship that year.

Lawter started 45 games at catcher in 2019, helping the Hokies advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years. She hit .278 with 11 homers and 30 RBIs.

She hit .340 in the 2020 season, which was cut short in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

That was the year that D’Amour started letting Lawter and Rochard call their own pitches, instead of having the pitches be called from the dugout.

“There’s no more way to be accountable than for a pitcher to call her own pitches,” he said. “It’s taking ownership of their game. I think by coaches calling the games for the pitchers, they take that ownership away.

“We had two mature kids in Keely and Mackenzie, and I trust them.”

D’Amour lets Tech’s other pitchers call pitches, too.

Pitching coach Doug Gillis gives Lawter and the pitcher a pregame plan, providing them with insights on the opposing hitters. He also consults with them between innings. But when the pitcher is in the circle, Lawter and the pitcher are in control.

“The scouting report is the baseline. Mac’s good enough to find out, ‘The kid missed on that one, let’s throw it again,’” D’Amour said. “Mac’s good enough to see what’s working for Keely and call pitches accordingly.”

The pitcher has the power to shake Lawter’s signal off if she would rather throw a different pitch. But Rochard said she agrees with Lawter most of the time.

“She knows what I want to throw before she even starts a sign,” Rochard said. “She reads my mind very well.

“Not only does she learn the batter, … she also learns … how each individual [Tech] pitcher likes to pitch.”

Lawter said calling pitches adds fun to her job.

“It’s … the added element of trying to know what’s going on with each batter, trying to pick their brain a little bit, figure out what we should do,” Lawter said.

Lawter hit just .195 last year, but she started 42 games.

“I’ve always thought that whatever offense you get out of a catcher is a bonus,” D’Amour said.

Lawter helped the 2021 Hokies win an NCAA regional at Arizona State and advance to an NCAA super regional at UCLA.

“Last year was so much fun,” she said. “It was really special in the postseason to be able to do what we did.”

Graduate student

Lawter, who majored in both multimedia journalism and political science, earned her bachelor’s degree in May 2021. But she opted to return to Tech for her extra season of eligibility, which the NCAA gave all 2020 Division I softball players because of the pandemic.

She is once again catching Rochard, continuing a partnership that began with the Williamsburg Starz.

“It’s not something that happens every day, that you get to play so long with somebody and build that relationship,” Lawter said. “That has really helped us.”

Rochard is one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball collegiate player of the year award. She is 22-2 with 283 strikeouts and a 1.76 ERA.

“I don’t know what I would do without Mac back there,” Rochard said. “I just feel extremely comfortable with Mac. I trust her.

“She’s giving her 100% to make all my pitches the best that they can be. She works really hard to make sure to catch the ball before it breaks so I can get the best call possible.”

Lawter has also been a good partner with Tech’s No. 2 starter, Emma Lemley (15-4), who is one of 25 finalists for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s Division I freshman of the year award.

The Hokies are 40-6 overall and won the ACC regular-season title with a 21-2 league mark.

Lawter is batting .255 this season, up 60 points from her average last spring. She ranks third on the team with seven homers. She has a .373 on-base percentage, helped in part by the team-high 18 walks she has drawn with her keen knowledge of the strike zone.

She is pursuing a master’s degree in reputation management.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like, … a lot of crisis issue management,” she said.

It is a two-year program, so she will be back at Tech next year — as a nonplaying student.

She still has the upcoming ACC and NCAA tournaments to look forward to, but then her time in the catcher’s gear will come to an end.

“It’s going to be different,” she said. “But I’m really excited to continue to watch this program. It’s really something special.”

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