STATE COLLEGE — It’s around 8 p.m. on a Friday night, and Penn State has just beaten Nebraska, 8-7, in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament at Beard Field in Happy Valley.
Members of the crowd, which consists mostly of Nittany Lions supporters, stand and applaud before gathering on the concourse in the hopes of seeing the Penn State players exiting from the locker room.
But one young girl in the throng of fans isn’t there to cheer on the hometown team or collect any signatures from the Nittany Lions, even though she’s a Pennsylvania native and a fan of the Penn State football team.
She is at Beard Field, in fact, to watch her favorite player, and when her father walks over, it’s clear who that is.
He was carrying a large picture of Sierra Romero, a memento that belongs to his daughter, who happily professed her love of Michigan’s senior second baseman and said that the all-star Wolverine is the main attraction of the conference tournament.
“It started with the College Softball World Series,” said the young fan. “I saw her and I was like, ‘She’s awesome.’ Seeing her play was just so inspirational. She’s an amazing player. It’s just how she plays and her attitude — I think that’s an amazing aspect of being a softball player.
“Even though I don’t play her position, she’s still one of my favorite players.”
At Romero’s final conference tournament, her impact was felt both on the field and in the stands. For most spectators, it was the last time they would see her play live — the last time to see someone who could rightfully deserve the label of “transformative.”
The second baseman is just the second player in conference history to be named Big Ten Player of the Year three times, and she will most likely be a four-time All-American and have a chance to be named the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year this season after finishing as one of three finalists for the award in the past two years.
According to another spectator, who wore a Penn State jacket, Romero has raised the profile of the conference as a whole.
“I think she helps give us someone who has a national spotlight and brings a favorable light to the Big Ten,” he said. “Hopefully (she’ll) attract more people of her caliber to help raise the conference up so we’re more competitive across the country.
“As (more Big Ten teams) get into the World Series, the more that we can compete on that level, it’s just going to help (the conference) attract better talent and have a better foothold across the country.”
Romero didn’t record her first hit until the championship game, but she saved her best performance for last.
Romero tallied three hits in four at-bats, including a solo home run in her first plate appearance of the game in a 4-3 loss against No. 23 Minnesota in the tournament final.
Minnesota pitcher Sara Groenewegen, who pitched all 10 innings of the championship game, could only chuckle when asked after the game if she was glad to have seen Romero for possibly the last time.
After the game had finally ended, spectators were left with one final image of Romero climbing onto a bus with the rest of her team.
And as the bus came to life with a roar and slowly drove out of Beard Field into the night, fans could not be faulted for wondering when they would see another player like No. 32 come through Big Ten country again.