Alex Storako has reached the mountaintop.
At least for a pitcher in the Big Ten, that is. The senior right-hander is the reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, and her previous campaign was vital to the Michigan softball team’s conference title.
Now, in her senior season, expectations are as high as ever. Storako is again the Wolverines’ co-ace alongside fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien. Already, with a season remaining for both of them, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins has likened the pair to other pitching greats of Michigan history.
“When you speak of Meghan and Alex, you put them on the same wall as the (former Wolverine pitchers) Jenny Ritters and the Jordan Taylors,” Hutchins said prior to the season. “They’ve been fantastic pitchers; they’ve been top five in the NCAA in a bunch of categories, and we’re so lucky to have them on our team.”
But for Storako, Michigan softball greatness wasn’t something that she could have expected.
In fact, it was far from it.
Entering her junior season of high school, Storako was uncommitted on where she would play college softball. She received some offers — mostly from smaller schools such as DePaul, where she initially committed during her sophomore year. After transferring to Lincoln Way-East High School, she immediately became one of the most crucial members of the team.
“About midway through her junior year, she found her rhythm,” Lincoln-Way East coach Elizabeth Hyland said. “She got in her groove and it was smooth sailing from there. … You look at your pitcher as a leader, and during that year’s playoffs, she really led us.”
Even as Storako put it all together on the field, the successes she had hoped for didn’t come off it. Offers stayed few and far between as she continued to fly under the radar of larger programs. By season’s end, Storako remained unsure where her softball career would continue.
But she was unwilling to settle.
“There was so much maturity there,” Hyland said. “She knew exactly where her sights were set, and she was just gonna go for it. … She just wanted to prove herself.”
So, she took a chance. Storako remained uncommitted into her senior year, and joined the Sparks Premier 18U club that fall. On the larger club stage, she continued her success, and finally, larger programs started to take a look at her.
“Going into that year uncommitted, I had the mindset of just enjoying the moment,” Storako said. “I tried to play to my potential and have fun, and that led to me performing really well and getting a lot of looks from a lot of places.”
By the end of that fall season, Storako had done enough to garner an offer from Michigan. She soon took an official visit and fell in love with the program, committing on the spot. After exposing herself to the possibility of failure, she found the success she was looking for, becoming the last member of the Wolverines’ 2019 recruiting class.
Upon reaching Michigan, Storako found herself in uncharted territory once again. She came into college as a self-acclaimed “raw pitcher,” having never worked with a true pitching coach. Given the opportunity to learn from Michigan pitching coach Jen Brundage, she absorbed as much knowledge as she could.
Together, Brundage and Storako worked to solidify Storako’s potential, shaping her raw talent with Brundage’s deep technical knowledge. Brundage helped Storako develop into a pitcher who could contribute right away, readying her for a rapidly approaching collegiate debut. Storako first entered the circle for the Wolverines in their season opener. She tossed three hitless innings, the first of many successful outings that year.
But when Storako looks back at those early moments of her freshman season, that success isn’t what jumps out at her.
“My first collegiate start was against (then-No. 7) Arizona,” Storako recalled. “The most memorable thing about that game was when I gave up my first collegiate home run to Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, who’s now an Olympian. …
“It was just like, ‘Well, welcome to the big leagues.’ ”
In reality, that outing against the Wildcats was a speed bump during an otherwise very strong freshman season. Storako finished that year with a 2.02 ERA and 190 strikeouts, and was selected to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. It’s a testament to the way that Storako motivates herself, that in a season with so much accomplished, she still looks back at the first time she couldn’t get the job done.
At the start of her sophomore season, Storako came roaring out of the gates once again. Through her first 17 appearances, she recorded 141 strikeouts in just 75 innings. But of course, the season ended on a poor note, as the beginning of the pandemic brought it to an abrupt halt.
For Storako, that swift ending was turned even more bitter by her season’s final outing.
“The last pitch I ever threw that season was supposed to be an intentional walk,” Storako said. “I threw it in the dirt, and we lost in extra innings. I think that was a very defining pitch in my career. … Some of my best friends ended their softball career on that pitch.”
That pitch — and the lessons she learned from it — propelled Storako through the uncertainty surrounding the rest of that year. She continued to work every day to improve, knowing that when she did get a chance to pitch again, she wouldn’t let it slip away. By the time the 2021 season finally arrived, she had built up a massive chip on her shoulder.
From there, Storako took off. She delivered a masterful junior campaign, leading the nation in strikeouts-per-seven-innings while posting a 1.05 ERA. Her performance earned her a wide array of achievements, from setting Michigan strikeout records to a unanimous selection as the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.
Now, Storako is in the midst of the best season of her career. Through 11 appearances, she has a 0.75 ERA and is limiting opponents to a .138 batting average. Heading into the Wolverines’ home opener, she’s coming off her first ever no-hitter, an eight-inning gem against Drake.
Even as she soars to greater heights, Storako still recalls when her future in softball was uncertain.
“Being a small recruit and a late add to Michigan, I wasn’t expected to make a really big impact,” Storako said. “Having an impact now, years later, I’m grateful for every opportunity that comes my way. There’s a lot of things that could be very different if I chose a different path or if things didn’t go a certain way.”
So as Storako adds to her ever growing mountain of success, the foundations hold sturdy to the moments where she couldn’t find it.