O’s Ace Is Going D-I: Oxbow’s Fornwalt to Pitch at Merrimack

  • Oxbow's Madison Fornwalt stretches before basketball practice in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 5, 2018. Fornwalt is headed to Merrimack College to play softball next year. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Oxbow High's Madison Fornwalt delivers a pitch Saturday against BFA-Fairfax during the Vermont Division III title game at Castleton University. The junior struck out 15 Bullets and walked one to power the Olympians (13-3) to a 2-1 victory and their second consecutive title. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Purchase a reprint » Purchase a reprint »

  • Oxbow's Madison Fornwalt, left, guards teammate Chloe McIntire, during their basketball practice in Bradford, Vt., on Dec. 5, 2018. Fornwalt is headed to Merrimack College to play softball next year.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 06, 2018

Bradford, Vt. — Pitching, it seems, found Oxbow High senior Madison Fornwalt almost by accident.

It was during her sixth-grade season playing for the New Hampshire Lightning U-12 club softball team in Concord, when the coach approached the group in need of another pitcher. Fornwalt volunteered, and years later she recalled a few games in which she walked in runs and struggled to get out of innings.

But something clicked at that young age — sparking enough interest to push Fornwalt to get better.

All that hard work has paid off. Fornwalt signed her national letter of intent to join Merrimack College’s softball program, a team moving up to NCAA Division I and the Northeast Conference after having spent several years in D-II along with the rest of the school’s athletic department, effective with the 2019-20 season. (The men’s and women’s hockey teams already play in the Division I Hockey East Association.)

Merrimack, in North Andover, Mass., will become a full member of the conference in 2023-24 after completing its four-year D-I reclassification period.

“I just fell in love with the school as soon as I got there,” Fornwalt said on Wednesday after a girls basketball practice at the Oxbow High gym. “It’s usually a big team, they carry a big roster. It’s nice to have a big team like that. … My coach has a workout every Sunday. I’m going to a personal trainer just to get my body in shape so I don’t hurt myself my freshman year.”

Elaine Schwager, Merrimack’s 17-year head coach who begins the fifth year of her second stint with the school next spring, said she’s had her eye on Fornwalt for at least 1½ years, and she expects the Oxbow standout to fit right in on a young pitching staff that she hopes will help the team prosper at a higher competition level.

“We’re going to be young on the mound in a hitter’s league,” said Schwager, who has led the Warriors to a 68-31 record and back-to-back NCAA D-II tournament appearances over the last two seasons. “But when we recruited these pitchers to come in, and Maddie isn’t the only one, we knew (moving up to D-I) would likely happen. With awareness of the transition, we brought it kids that we thought were capable of getting us to the top of the conference in the next couple of years.

“Fortunately, we got Maddie early on. She’s the perfect fit for Merrimack. Who she is as a person, she’s a very good match all the way around. She can totally pitch at our level.”

It took a while for Fornwalt to get used to pitching; she perfected her pitches during year-round practices with her club teams.

“At first, I would just keep walking people until they just came home. It started off really difficult,” Fornwalt said. “I think the hardest part is using everything you have. It’s not just your arm, it’s your groin, your legs, it’s hard to get everything into one pitch.”

It was the summer before her freshman year that Fornwalt noticed she was pitching faster and harder than her peers.

“When I was 12 years old, I played on a U-18 team, so I was playing on a team with girls who were playing in college,” she said. “I kind of felt like I was on their level, too. I got to play against pretty tough competition. … It was nice. I got to see what they were doing. They were able to help me.”

Her college search began in earnest in the summer of 2017, at a series of showcases and tryouts that left the O’s standout, at times, mixed between excitement and stress. She has helped the Olympians win back-to-back VPA Division III state championships over the last two seasons and make three straight D-III final appearances since her freshman season; Oxbow is 48-4 since Fornwalt joined the squad in 2016.

Merrimack seemed like the perfect fit.

“As soon as I stepped on campus, I felt at home,” she said.

It was no surprise to anyone who has seen Fornwalt pitch that she was destined for the collegiate ranks. More than any other part of her game, however, is the scary combination of velocity and fine-tuned accuracy that makes her a force to be reckoned with.

“She’s overpowering,” said Carl Hildebrandt, who enters his second season at the helm of Oxbow’s softball team this spring after serving a lengthy tenure as an assistant under veteran coach Robin Wozny. “She can be intimidating on the mound. It’s just her presence. I know teams already that don’t want to play us next season.”

That strength was noticed early on by Jim Rosenberg, a past president of New Hampshire Lightning and current coach of the club’s U-18 team who said he remembers Fornwalt as the hard-throwing pitcher with the kind of work ethic that helps develop talent. Fornwalt has played club softball for the Concord Cannons program for the last several years.

“She was a young kid, but what she had was natural talent, real-deal speed, a high-velocity pitcher,” Rosenberg said. “You don’t see too many kids out of northern New England throwing the speed she’s throwing.”

A 2016 recruiting video posted on YouTube by Whitney Roberts, her Concord Cannons coach, marked Fornwalt’s fastball at 62 mph. Jennie Finch, the now-retired collegiate All-American pitcher for Arizona University who helped the U.S. win back-to-back medals in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, topped out at about 70 mph — the softball equivalent of throwing in the low 90s when compared with a baseball pitch.

“We played against her very recently,” Rosenberg said. “It’s not fun to do.”

Fornwalt took on a much larger role with the O’s last season on a team that graduated a large chunk of its undefeated championship-winning squad in 2017. That graduating class included pitcher Mary Bourgeois, who shared the team’s pitching duties with Fornwalt for her first two years. Hildebrandt said it took some time last season for Fornwalt, with the hard work and talent in place, to develop into a leader, as aspect of her game that he now sees.

“I think she was a reluctant leader,” Hildebrandt said. “Not to take anything away from Mary, but (Fornwalt) was a freshman on varsity; she didn’t want to take over any of the leadership spotlight from the (older) girls ahead of her. … A lot of these girls look up to her. I think she’s come to teams with that.”

Fornwalt’s success, along with the records and titles, Hildebrandt added, is confident that Oxbow’s softball program — from the feeder teams at that youth level to the varsity squad — is working.

“It’s been years of this. Younger girls are aspiring to be (like Fornwalt),” he said. “It helps the whole program. Good pitchers, good programs breed good feeder programs. We owe a lot of thanks to girls like Maddie.”

Schwager said she plans on utilizing Fornwalt as both a pitcher and a hitter next year — an aspect of her game that Hildebrandt said gets a little overshadowed by her pitching velocity.

“Her swing is beautiful,” he said. “It’s so freaking fluid.”

But Schwager said the most exciting aspect of Fornwalt’s game is what she could become. In a era of transition for Merrimack, raw power might be just what the doctor ordered.

“The best part about what I see is that she hasn’t even touched her full potential,” Schwager said. “As good as she does, she has so much more growth ahead of her. We’re very excited to see her get to her maximum.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.