Pitching Key For 2017 Success
Improved Pitches, New Workouts Highlight Off-season Changes
DENTON - After an up and down 2016 campaign from her pitching staff, North Texas head softball coach Tracey Kee knew something needed to change in the team's off-season approach.
What ensued was a reconstruction of the day-to-day pitching workouts.
"We turned it into an incredibly individualized program, where most of the time it was one of the pitchers throwing in the bullpen to myself or coach Holton," Kee said of the new workout program. "Each pitcher received an individual pitching plan, and we made each session more game-like with regards to how pitches are called."
Kee knew the transition wouldn't be easy for a pitching staff comprised of seniors Jessica Elder and Stacey Underwood and sophomore Lauren Craine, but after reviewing each pitch and its result from a year ago, she knew it was the right move to make.
"I never doubted the pitching ability of our staff, but I don't think we were getting the carryover from their workout in the bullpen to the game last season," Kee added. "We needed to make a change."
In 2016, the returning trio finished with a combined earned run average of 4.31 and opponents hit .307 against them. In conference play, the ERA ballooned to 5.21 and the average went up 30 points.
Elder, who led the team with 14 wins and 164 innings pitched, feels the new individualized pitching programs are a better way to approach this season and is confident the numbers will reflect the work put in this off-season.
"Like coach says, `we are all different and we are all at different paces,' so the individual workouts allowed us really focuses on what each person needs to work on," Elder said. "When we all fix our individual issues, then it becomes us and we can be a really good staff."
"Last year, we all struggled," Craine said. "When one of us was on, the other two were off. This year, we need to work more as a staff. It was a mental game, but it's something that we needed to fix to be successful this season. The new workout program helped a lot, but we also need to have more confidence out there."
Confidence is a word that was talked about a lot this off-season, and it may mean the most to Underwood, a former 20-game winner in junior college, who is trying to find that success at the Division I level.
"When I was in junior college, I knew that I was better than everyone else," Underwood said. "Then I got here and people were hitting me and I wasn't used to that. I had to change my mindset and regain the confidence because I have the ability to win games and be successful at this level."
Underwood flashed that ability down the stretch last season, throwing 10-scoreless innings against UAB, picking up one win and racking up seven strikeouts and allowing only four hits in the weekend series. She was awarded Conference USA Pitcher of the Week honors for her performance.
The staff was also challenged to improve its secondary pitches in order to give batters a different look at the plate after recording 146 strikeouts in 2016.
"I'm sure it was shocking at the beginning, and probably frustrating when you are really dialing in pitches that you never had confidence in," Kee said. "It took awhile, but they bought in, and their secondary pitches have improved as a result."
All three of the returning pitchers agreed that the new pitches added a dimension to their repertoire that they didn't have a year ago, helping them establish confidence in more than two pitches while making their primary pitches better in the process.
Kee was also able to add a late spark to the staff, signing pitcher/utility player Hanna Rebar, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin, at the semester break.
"Hanna will bring a jolt of energy to this staff," Kee added. "Our three pitchers have matured, but anytime you can add a quality arm to your staff, you are happy. She has late, natural movement down in the zone that will benefit our staff."
All of the adjustments have been made for the staff to breakout in 2017. Fans will learn if those changes pay off when the team opens the season with the North Texas Invitational Feb. 10-12 at Lovelace Stadium.