Michelle Sass is Oregon State softball's 'Swiss Army' knife
The term "student-athlete" is thrown about loosely in college athletics.
Many of those participating at the college level are much more "athlete" than "student."
That's not the case with Michelle Sass, Oregon State's junior right fielder from St. Helens High School.
Sass is making important contributions on the field as a part-time starter for the Beavers. Off the field, she is a 3.6 student in kinesiology/pre-med. She intends to apply for medical school next year and hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon.
"Getting good grades is my No. 1 goal," Sass said. "We're students before we're athletes."
Her class load this term includes courses in organic chemistry, bio-chemistry, exercise physiology and motor behavior.
"It's been super difficult, but I don't have an easy term the rest of the way," Sass said. "I just grind. I want my grades to be better."
Coach Laura Berg appreciates having Sass in the program.
"She's a competitor," said Berg, in her sixth season at the OSU helm. "She wants to win badly. She is going to work hard to find a way, whether on the field or in life. She is going to do some amazing things. I can't wait to see what she does in the real world."
For now, Sass' world revolves around school and softball. The latter has been in her life since she began playing at age 6, following the lead of older sister Susannah.
"I decided to keep on playing, got into travel ball and it became my life," she said.
At St. Helens, Sass was a four-year starting catcher who led the Lions to a league championship and the Class 5A semifinals her junior season. She hit .428 as a freshman, .432 as a junior and .391 as a senior.
Sass considered playing at Portland State before deciding to walk on at Oregon State.
"Corvallis seemed like home," she said. "I liked the small-town feel, the campus, the atmosphere. And I wanted to play for coach Berg. It felt like it was the place for me."
Sass was a bit player for the Beavers through most of her first two seasons, appearing mostly as a pinch-runner. It was the first time in her career she wasn't a starter.
"It was an adjustment, but I understood my role on the team," Sass said. "I continued to work hard at practice, tried to push my teammates. I just made base running my specialty."
But Sass broke through at the end of the season after starting second baseman Stephanie Merwin went down with an injury. Sass started the final three games, playing in a regular-season victory over California, then in the NCAA regional at Waco, Texas, in losses to James Madison and Kent State. In those games, she went 3 for 8 at the plate while playing error-free ball in the field.
"She did fantastic," Berg said. "She was ready when she was called upon."
"I got my job done," Sass said. "It was what I had been dreaming about since I was little."
Sass also was a member of the 2016 OSU team that played in a regional at Auburn, Alabama.
"Going to the regionals the last two years is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything," she said.
Sass stayed in Corvallis last summer to train and prepare for this season. The 5-foot-4 Sass came into the year weighing 145 pounds.
"I was 115 coming in as a freshman," she said. "I've gotten bigger and stronger."
This season, Sass picked up right where she left off at the end of last season, moving from second base to right field. She is hitting .232, with nine RBIs in 56 at-bats. She has started 19 times and played in 21 games for Oregon State, which is 20-15 and was ranked 24th in the nation at one point.
Her two-run single in the eighth inning beat then-No. 16 Oklahoma State 4-2 on Feb. 22. Later that day, she was 3 for 4 and scored two runs in an 11-2 victory over Bethune-Cookman.
Two weeks later, she tagged her first college home run, a deep blow to left-center field that gave OSU a 7-3 lead in the fifth inning of a 10-5 series-opening win at California.
Sass also was 1 for 3 with an RBI as the Beavers beat then-No. 16 Cal 8-3 to take the series 2-1.
Against fourth-ranked UCLA, Sass hit a two-run homer in the fifth inning to tie the Bruins before the home team in Los Angeles prevailed 3-2.
"Every time we put her in, she is competing at the plate," Berg said. "She is taking advantage of her opportunities."
Sass is listed as a utility player for a reason.
"Michelle is a little Swiss Army knife," Berg said. "We can put her in the outfield, in the infield at second or third, behind the plate. We can put her anywhere we need her.
"She comes out and work hard, day in and day out. She gives it everything she's got. She is one of those athletes who, if you tell her to run through a wall, she will."
Two years playing at the college level have made a difference for Sass this season.
"With experience, you gain an edge," she said. "As a freshman, you're naive. It's like, 'I can do anything.' Then reality sets in. You have to keep on working. I've processed all the stuff my coaches have told me and tried to work it in when I can."
Sass said she has learned a lot from Berg, one of the greatest players in U.S. history. Berg was the center fielder on Olympic teams that won three gold medals (1996, 2000 and 2004) and a silver (2008). Her eighth-inning hit drove in the winning run in the gold-medal game at Sydney in 2000.
"Her intensity and passion for the game is something you can't compare anything to," Sass said. "She is so into what she is doing and loves her job. You need to pick her brain, because she's so knowledgeable about the game."
Oregon State has played a loaded schedule, with a 6-14 record against opponents ranked among the nation's top 25. Sass said the Beavers are aiming for a spot near the top in the Pac-12 this season.
"Our goal is to be top three in the league," she said. "We're shooting super high. We're never settling. We're going to push for that. We know we can beat every single team in the Pac-12 on any given day.
"We have more team chemistry than we did the last two years. We all work well together. We hang out outside of softball. It's awesome to have your teammates as your sisters, your best friends. I would go to war with any of them on the field. When we all have that mind-set, we can do so much together."
Sass said she will take much from her experience at Oregon State.
"I've learned so much from college softball," she said. "I've learned time management. I've learned how to work hard, how to take criticism. There are so many things that will help me with my job and with future relationships."