The scene Saturday afternoon on the softball field at Madison High School illustrated the point perfectly.
Returning all-region pitcher Kelsey Ross of the Warhawks was pumping 55-60 mile-per-hour strikes past most of the Centreville lineup on the way to a 10-strikeout, three-hitter. But her counterpart for the Wildcats, freshman Jamie Purtell, was having just as much success throwing about 30-percent slower.
The Warhawks won the game, 1-0, thanks to a first-inning rally and some clutch late-inning defense. Even though each pitcher was effective, they couldn’t have been more different. The imposing Madison senior, bound for Duke in a few months (where there is no varsity softball), tallied strikeouts and sent fans scurrying into the bushes for foul balls because Centreville’s bats couldn’t catch up. Purtell also induced lots of foul balls, but most of them whizzed past Warhawks coach John Schneeberger, who was coaching third base, since his right-handed hitters couldn’t slow down their swings.
It begs the question: could a team challenge for a softball state title with a pitcher who doesn’t threaten a pane of glass? How about this: could a team whose pitchers are struggling to throw strikes with the traditional “windmill” motion resort to a style that would be more at home in a slow-pitch, beer-league game than in the competitive Northern Region? After all, when the adult slow pitch season kicks off Braddock Park in Centreville next week, there will be almost as many 5-4 nail-biters as 36-35 slug-fests.
“It’s a possibility, but probably not,” said local independent pitching coach Jimmy Marr, whose daughter, Morgan, starred at Madison and earned a scholarship to the University of Kentucky a decade ago, giving him his start in the specialty. He now works with 25-30 girls, of all ages, each year. He says the key to success with the windmill delivery is repetition starting at a young age, which usually requires a patient parent who will catch pitches all summer long as their daughter refines her mechanics.
For example, Ross said she began pitching around the age of six when she went to a softball camp, and she’s been at it ever since.
“I’ve always loved the position,” she said.
Even the hardest throwers get hit eventually. So for a soft-tosser, look out.
“These [hitters] around here are really good. You can’t even just go up there and throw fastball after fastball; by the third time through the lineup, no matter how hard [or soft] it comes in, the good hitters are going to crush it. You have to mix it up,” Marr explained.
Standout South County infielder Whitney Burks, a junior bound for Stanford in 2014, agreed.
“They would probably get crushed [if the pitches] came in flat all the way through and there wasn’t much speed on it,” said Burks, a first-team all-region player last year. “You’d just really have to stay back on it. It would probably get crushed a lot.”
Lauryn Hahne, McLean’s senior second-team all-region pitcher, thought the biggest disadvantage for a pitcher who didn’t use the windmill would be the ball’s lack of movement.
“You usually can’t get enough velocity and spin that way, but if they had a good defense [a team could win],” said Hahne before the Highlanders ran through a handful of defensive scenarios in their final practice before a spring break tournament in South Carolina.
It’s not just speed that makes a good pitcher, she said. Confidence and timing are key, too.
“If you’re off by an inch or so, it can throw off the whole pitch. And it’s hard to stay calm in certain situations. So for a pitcher, that’s very important.”
Burks went on to say that a pitcher without a lot of zip requires a stellar defense; and the offense would have its work cut out for it, too. Another coach, Mitch Hughes from Robinson, agreed.
“You’d have to hit the ball a lot (to overcome) the pitching, and you’d have to have tight defense that’s going to make sure every ball that’s hit in play gets caught,” said Hughes, whose Rams were shut-out thanks to a combined one-hitter from Madison’s Elizabeth Fallas and Katie Vannicola.
In the case of injuries decimating a pitching staff, teams have thrown a good athlete out on the mound, and said “just throw strikes.” Sometimes, it works.
“West Springfield won a state championship doing that a while back,” said Schneeberger, the fifth-year Madison coach who earned his 200th-career win in the Warhawks’ victory over Centreville. “The big horse pitchers didn’t really start happening until late 1980s or early 1990s.”
One of those quintessential “horses” was 2005 Madison grad Lauren Frankiewicz, who went on to star at both the University of California and DePaul. In fact, the dominant pitchers of that era forced a rule change that moved the rubber to 43 feet from 40 feet in high school games.
“That’s when pitching used to be about 80 percent of the game,” Schneeberger said. “A good pitcher like Frankiewicz would strike out maybe 18, get one out on a dribbler back to the mound and her defense would only have to make two plays.”
Marr says the only pitcher at that level this year is Bishop O’Connell’s Tori Finucane, who tosses no-hitters with regularity and finished the 2012 season with a 0.09 ERA.
“I clocked her at 66 mph. That’s fast from 43 feet. Compared to a baseball pitcher, that’s probably in the 90s,” said Marr of Finucane, who will play for the University of Missouri next year.
Maurice Tawil, who led Hahne and the Highlanders to a 2010 state title, said a good high school program needs to develop pitching starting with ninth-graders, but the seeds of varsity success are planted even earlier with travel teams and personal coaches like Marr.
“There’s a good crop, especially in McLean, of young pitchers coming up, and they work at their trade,” Tawil said.
Unfortunately, that leads to some envy within the coaching ranks.
“If I took one of Madison’s pitchers, any one of them, we’d play deep into the region,” Hughes said. “That’s just the way it goes.”