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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Tuesday Cardinal Couple - WCWS Reflections on Pitching



WCWS Softball Binge Watching

If you listened to Saturday's Cardinal Couple Radio Hour on Crescent Hill Radio, you heard that I've been dealing with some gall bladder issues and have been a bit under the weather since about Thursday and have largely been laid up on my couch.

Conveniently, the Women's College World Series, the NCAA championship event for Softball, also started Thursday.  To say that I've watched a lot of softball over the weekend doesn't really capture it.  In fact, I've probably watched just about every pitch of the WCWS...minus those where I dozed off thanks to the Percocet...and I continue to watch it right now as I write this article.

I've noticed something, and this isn't just based on the observations of the eight teams in this year's world series, but they have certainly brought it into sharper focus.  The common thread among these eight teams, and in teams in the WCWS in years past, has been pitching.  We've talked about pitching woes here on Cardinal Couple in the past as well as on the radio show, and I think Paulie and I disagree in some of this, but I'm starting to worry that UofL Softball is still not going down the right path in the pitching staff area.  The thing I've noticed, though, is that these teams have one primary pitcher that seems to pitch most, or even all, of their games.  In softball, its feasible to have one pitcher take you through most, if not all, of the season and post-season, and all of the teams that seem to make it deep into post-season show this pattern.

Torrid Tori Collins and DEX
There are exceptions, and there are certainly example that can be pointed to for when you need to be prepared to replace a pitcher that is just out of gas...the most recent example of that is UK's loss in the WCWS when it was clear to all that Kelsey Nunnley was just exhausted, but no substitution was forthcoming.

A couple of years ago, UofL had a fantastic pitcher, Tori Collins, who pitched most of the season and
it was one of the better seasons Louisville has had in softball.  As an aside, Tori went on to marry former UofL Football player Dexter Heyman and the two have an absolutely adorable child, now.

Last season, UofL really only had two pitchers, Caralisa "Carl" Connell and a transfer Rachel LeCoq.  Carl started out the season quite well, and Rachel struggled a little early.  As the season went on, however, Carl...well...there's no nice way to put this...she just fell apart as a pitcher.  This left Rachel picking up the pieces, which she increasingly did as the season went on.  When the NCAA Regionals came around, UofL had done well enough to host, but eventually, with one loss in the bag, came up against a very good UCLA team on Saturday night.  I remember that night well, though I wish I didn't.  Let's just suffice it to say that everyone was glad when that game was over.  The verdict?  Rachel was worn out and developing blisters on her pitching fingers, and Carl just wasn't getting the job done - UofL just ran out of pitching.

It should be noted that Jasmine Smithson Willett was a freshman pitcher on the squad who could hit as well...but saw little action in the circle in the 2013 season and decided to transfer after one year. She did occasionally play outfield for Louisville on occasion and actually came in to finish the UCLA game...whether her skills were good enough to possibly contend for a more active role is something we'll never know.

So what's the response?  Go recruit more pitching, right?  I thought so too, and that's what has happened (it should be pointed out that our freshmen pitchers this year, Maryssa Becker, and Tiarra Sanabria, were already signed by this point), Coach P and staff went and recruited a couple of more pitchers to join the Cardinals pitching staff.  Rachel LeCoq and Caralisa Connell have now both graduated, leaving Maryssa and Tiarra.  Next year Bridgette Flaherty, a southpaw, and Madi Norman will be joining the pitching staff, bringing the stable back to four.

So, where's my concern?  Well, I'm excited about having a leftie in the mix, for sure, and Maryssa Becker certainly showed this year that she has the potential to be a real go-to pitcher.  My concern is the approach to the pitching staff...if you don't do well, you're going to get pulled and someone else put in your place...may be counterproductive.  It certainly doesn't give the pitcher the confidence to pitch through struggles and back to success.

Ex-Cards pitcher Aja Sherman
was the first UofL hurler to
throw a perfect game.
I just worry that we're not developing a pitcher that can reliably close the deal.  Logic says a staff of
multiple good pitchers is better, because just have to find the one that is "on" at that moment and let them take over the game.  But you may have already done too much damage as you cycle through pitchers that are "off" before you find one that's "on" and you're in too deep of a hole for the offense to dig out of.

I'm not a softball expert by any means, but my observations from watching a whole lot of the WCWS suggests that maybe a different strategy should be in order.  Maybe our coaching staff are thinking largely the same way, but they just don't know which of the four pitchers in our stable (two freshmen and two sophomores, so plenty of youth) will develop into a real go-to pitcher.  I don't know.

I just know that despite numerous bright spots in our pitching the past couple of years, it hasn't been adequate for getting to the next level of play in the NCAA....that being the Super Regional and ultimately the WCWS.



The decision to transfer from Louisville to Oregon was simple for Smithson-Willett. After suffering a stress fracture her freshman year, Smithson-Willett wasn’t satisfied with her results. Naturally, when she heard of an opportunity to play for Oregon as a pitcher — a position she’s always wanted to play at the college level — Smithson-Willett made the move.

“I didn’t even get a chance to suck (at Louisville),” Smithson-Willett said. “So, I really wanted to make an impression this year. It’s all about chances and when I was looking at schools, I asked who would give me a chance. Coach White really took me under his wing and I appreciate that.”

Since arriving to Oregon, Smithson-Willett has smoothly transitioned back into her role as a pitcher and gained the respect of her teammates in the process. Smithson-Willett, the hardest-throwing pitcher for the Ducks, adds another dimension that every team wishes it had.

Smthson-Willett was 4-1 for the Ducks in five starts. She made 20 circle appearances in 2014. Oregon was eliminated from the WCWS on Sunday by Alabama 2-0.

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