NEWTON, Mass. – Nicole Handzel (Palmer, Mass.) is no stranger to making pitches.
As a junior hurler for the Mount Ida College softball team, her prowess at doing just that has already helped her set the school record for strikeouts in a season and earn a Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) All-Conference selection as a freshman, and post a 1.82 earned run average with 56 strikeouts in nine appearances this season.
This past weekend, the Interior Architecture and Design major was on a different stage, making perhaps the most important pitch of her college career.
She was presenting her design work to a panel of judges, family and friends at The Boston Design Center on Friday evening as one of eight finalists in the 2nd Annual Design New England Design Showdown, a competition in which design students are challenged to imagine a living and working space that combines innovative design, functionality, and elements of social responsibility, as it is created with a randomly assigned disability in mind for its occupier.
One of three members of the Mount Ida College community and the only Mount Ida undergraduate to be selected as a finalist, Handzel's design for a potential client suffering with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) foreshadowed the work that she would like to do in her career, and though it was a nerve-wracking experience, she described it as an overwhelming success.
"I would really love to work in commercial and residential design, and universal design, creating a space that's accessible to more people, is very prominent right now," said Handzel, who researched PTSD extensively in preparation for her entry. "When people think of disabilities they think of designing for physical disabilities, like a wheelchair. PTSD was a different way of creating a space that's a positive experience, and it's really overlooked in design."
Under the guidance of Mount Ida College professor Senofer Mendoza, who assigned the project to her upper level interior design class, Handzel created a training room for therapeutic dogs for people with PTSD, including a lounge for people to socialize with good acoustics to help absorb noise, the safe haven that she found in her research many people affected by PTSD are craving to prevent isolation and startling noises.
"In the residential space I used digital camouflage with bright colors to convey the message that you don't have to hide. The retail space has blues, greens and neutral browns, which are calming colors, while the upstairs living space is more muted to be more comfortable," said Handzel.
Over 40 entrants from across New England, including Professor Mendoza's class, presented concepts of their design in Round 1. Once selected as a finalist, Handzel had to expand on her ideas, creating visual presentation boards and a power point to accompany her five minute presentation and Q & A session.
Mount Ida was the best represented school with three finalists at the event, which was a collaboration between Design New England magazine and the Boston Design Center with support from the American Society of Interior Designers' New England chapter. Graduate students Nicolette Gordon and Augusta Hahnel also represented Mount Ida, with Gordon claiming the title of 1st runner up at the post-event awards ceremony and after party.
While she enjoys her work creating new environments in interior design, Handzel stressed that it is softball that she uses as an escape from work. And after missing most of last season with a torn labrum in her non-pitching shoulder before returning to pitch the Mustangs back in to the Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) tournament, she is feeling good about how her season has begun.
"My goals for this year are to get stronger physically, back to where I was so that I can be the workhorse for this team," said Handzel, who has already pitched 50.0 innings and collected a pair of wins in Florida this year. "I want to make sure that I hit my spots and cut down on my walks. I set a goal in practice where I throw ten straight pitches and have to hit every spot in a row."
Mount Ida, who has started the year 3-7 and are gearing up for their first GNAC games of the year, which will come on Tuesday at Saint Joseph's (ME), are seeking a second straight postseason appearance, a feat that Handzel believes is well within their reach by continuing to trust and communicate with each other, playing solid defense and continuing to get their bats going like they did in the first three days of their spring break trip to Florida, when they hit .325 as a club.
Handzel also equated her preparation and concentration in design, particularly to this competition, to how she goes about preparing for and executing each pitch when she takes the ball for the Mustangs. In both cases, it's about staying focused and finding your groove.
"Softball is 90% mental, so it takes both mechanics and focus. When I have my rhythm and I'm focused, that's when I'm good to go."
With incredible talent and a determined attitude, Handzel will undoubtedly find herself making great pitches for many more years.