CLEARWATER — She was instantly smitten with the University of Utah, which loved her back. Claire Feldman, born in New Orleans but raised in Florida, loved the mountains and campus, the high level of softball and low levels of humidity.
“Obviously being in the Pac-12 was a huge deal, too,” the former Newsome High ace said of that visit in August 2015. “And just the atmosphere, the family atmosphere, the team, the coaches — it was just a perfect match for me.”
But the warm reception ended there. As part of her orientation to Mountain Standard Time softball, Feldman quickly learned nature can freeze hitters, too.
“Actually, last year we played Stanford at home, and in the morning our entire field was covered in snow,” she recalled. “All of our managers and everyone had to shovel the snow off of our field and get it ready for game time.”
Now in her third year in Salt Lake City, Feldman, a two-time Tampa Bay Times Player of the Year for Hillsborough County, has acclimated herself to the local climate.
“It’s funny because after the whole first year I’d come back home and 70 degrees was, like, so hot for me,” she said.
Weathering the transition from team cornerstone (at Newsome) to role player in a glittering ensemble has taken a bit more time. Currently, Feldman, a 20-year-old redshirt sophomore, is the No. 3 pitcher in what’s shaping up as a two-arm rotation.
She entered this weekend’s St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational with one appearance through five games, striking out one and walking one in two-thirds of an inning in a 9-0 loss to Missouri. In her first appearance at the invitational on Friday, she gave up two earned runs in 1.2 relief innings in a loss to Kentucky.
In 2018, she made only 11 appearances, but tossed five scoreless innings to start her college career.
“That, as you can imagine, is a very difficult thing to go through,” said her dad, Greg, whose family practically summered at the Eddie C. Moore Complex (site of this weekend’s event) during travel-ball season.
“She was the go-to pitcher for every team she played on, including high school, for the better part of seven years. … So it has been an adjustment, but I will give Claire credit because she loves everything about (Utah). She just wishes she pitched more.”
Her workload was projected to increase this weekend in Clearwater, with Utah (4-1) scheduled to play five games. It’s part of the Utes’ traditional season-opening odyssey, which this year takes them from Arizona to Florida to California, then back to Arizona before an early-March spring tournament in Hawaii.
Because of weather, Utah typically doesn’t play a game at home until mid-March.
“It’s definitely been a bit of an adjustment because everybody who plays in the Pac-12 probably comes from the same sort of starting, star role from high school and travel ball and all that,” said Feldman, who fanned 155 in 96 innings as a Newsome junior in 2015, when she led the Wolves to the Class 8A state title.
“For me, it’s been about learning and accepting my role. And once I do that, being able to earn my way to getting more and more innings, and trusting that if I just go in there and do my best and do my job, eventually I will earn more and more innings and more and more chances.”
Even if the opportunities don’t increase, Feldman isn’t likely to bolt; she loves the place too much. Besides, younger sister Mary Beth — the current Newsome ace — already has signed with Utah.
“I couldn’t have asked for better teammates and better people to be surrounded by,” Feldman said. “And the softball, of course, is amazing; the best competition I could ask for. It’s just been awesome.”
St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational
16-team college softball tournament; through Sunday; Eddie C. Moore Complex, 2780 Drew St., Clearwater
Saturday’s schedule: Oregon vs. Florida Atlantic, 10; LSU vs. Ohio State, 10; Texas vs. Kentucky, 10 (SEC); Hofstra vs. Oklahoma, 10 (ESPN3); Florida Atlantic vs. James Madison, 1; Ohio State vs. Utah, 1; Florida State vs. LSU, 1 (ESPN3); Oklahoma State vs. California, 1 (ESPN3); Notre Dame vs. Minnesota, 4; Hofstra University vs. Oklahoma State, 4; Kentucky vs. Oregon, 4 (ESPNU); Tennessee vs. James Madison, 4 (ESPN3); Utah vs. Tennessee, 7; California vs. Notre Dame, 7 (ESPN3); Minnesota vs. Florida State, 7:30 (ESPN3)
Sunday’s schedule: Ohio State vs. Notre Dame, 10 (ESPNU); Minnesota vs. California, 10 (ESPN3); James Madison vs. Kentucky, 1 (ESPN3); Utah vs. Hofstra University, 1 (ESPN3); Florida Atlantic vs. Florida State, 4 (ESPN3); Florida State vs. Tennessee, 7 (ESPN2)
Tickets: Tickets are sold out for Saturday. Fans are encouraged to buy tickets for Sunday in advance at stpeteclearwatereliteinvite.com
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.