October 17, 2012

Prep softball: Pitchers have the upper hand for Dalton, Northwest Whitfield

A good argument can be made that in no other high school team sport in Georgia is one position as important — or dominant — as the pitcher in a fastpitch softball lineup.

In football, a dominant running back or quarterback is only as effective as his offensive line. If the quarterback doesn’t have time in the pocket, he can’t make the game-winning throw. If the line isn’t opening holes or sealing off ends, it doesn’t matter how fast the running back is. In basketball, a dominating center can be shut down by packing the defense into the lane if the perimeter players aren’t hitting shots.

Even in baseball, there are rules to limit the amount of pitching your star hurler can deliver for your team.

But in softball, a dominating pitcher is the difference in a sub-.500 season and a trip to the state tournament in Columbus, no matter how good your offense may be.

Fortunately for Northwest Whitfield and Dalton — both schools play today in best-of-three series in second round of the Class 4A state playoffs — they have pitchers with arms that give their teams an excellent shot to advance to next week’s double-elimination bracket.

The Lady Bruins (29-3), the top-ranked team in the coaches poll and the Region 7-4A champions, will host sixth-ranked Carrollton (27-7), Region 5’s No. 3 seed in a doubleheader starting at 5 p.m. in Tunnel Hill. If necessary, Game 3 will be played at 5 p.m. Thursday in Tunnel Hill.

Dalton (15-17), which stormed through the region tournament to claim the No. 3 seed from Region 7-4A, will travel to fifth-ranked Columbus (28-4-1), the Region 5 champion, for a 4:30 p.m. doubleheader. If necessary, Game 3 would be played at the same time Thursday in Columbus.

Northwest ace Emily Boyd has been the area’s most dominant pitcher throughout her high school career, being selected as The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Softball Player of the Year the past three seasons. Dalton’s Allie Blackwood, also a senior, has won five in a row in the postseason to help lead the Lady Catamounts’ surge, which included a sweep of Redan in last week’s first round.

And despite the challenges for pitchers two seasons ago — the rubber was moved from 40 to 43 feet in 2010, and regulations have allowed bats designed to carry the ball farther — it is still the pitchers who hold the upper hand in fastpitch softball.

“It has always been historically a pitcher-dominated sport,” Boyd said. “They tried to take that away by moving the (rubber) back and allowing really hot bats in the game. They are trying to make it more of a hitter’s sport, but the harder they make it, the harder (pitchers) are going to work. Everyone is going to hitting lessons and getting better, but it is that much harder that pitchers have to work.”

Boyd and Blackwood have been able to handle the pressure of being in the spotlight for their teams. Blackwood said learning to adapt early to the pressure of the position was key to being a consistent pitcher.

“I have been pitching since I was really young, and I love it,” she said. “The pressure has never really gotten to me too much. I do better in pressure situations than when it is a little more laidback. I don’t feel like I have to do as much when it is a laidback situation, but when the pressure is on, I know I have to step up and do a little more to get the job done.”

Despite the changes to the game, even Northwest coach Jason Brooker and Dalton coach Jeff McKinney realize that pitching is the key to making it to Columbus as one of the final eight teams in the postseason. Brooker, who’s in his first year as coach of the Lady Bruins, has a background more grounded in baseball, but he learned quickly how important the pitching for softball can be a dominating factor.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better or anyone better than (Boyd),” Brooker said. “It starts out with her velocity. I haven’t seen another pitcher with her velocity this year. And of course, any good hitter is going to hit a fastball if you don’t locate it, and her location has been pretty sharp this year. Also, you have to change speed, and her changeup has been better and better each game this year.”

The same has been true for Blackwood, especially during this recent run.

“Allie gives us that chance when she is (pitching), because she is an above-average pitcher,” McKinney said. “She can compete with anybody and will give you an opportunity to win. She is used to it and has pitched for four years and pitches in the summer so it isn’t the pressure like it was. Game in and out, it is a mental game for her. She has to come ready to play every time she gets on the rubber.”

Blackwood is 11-7 this season, but she has an earned run average of 1.75 with 92 strikeouts in 112 innings pitched. Out of 55 runs given up by Blackwood in 2011, only 28 have been earned.

As good as Blackwood has been, Boyd is at another level. The Ole Miss commitment is 22-2 with 243 strikeouts in 151 innings. She has allowed just 14 earned runs and has a minuscule 0.65 ERA. She is allowing an average of less than three hits per game.

With the ability to dominate games and give their teams the best chance to advance this week comes a healthy dose of pressure. But both pitchers said that is something they learned to deal with early in their playing days.

“The biggest thing for me was that I learned to handle the pressure more as I began to trust my pitches more and not to freak out when I am out there,” Blackwood said. “You just have to do what you are taught and trust it and get the best outcome from it.”

Boyd agreed.

“I feel pressure, but it has always been the same kind — the kind you put on yourself,” Boyd said. “You grow accustomed to it as you play. I know I have a good team behind me, and I know they are going to get me a few runs. I know what my job is, but my teammates take a lot of that pressure off of me.

“I try to turn the nerves into an adrenaline rush to give me a little more power. I have learned how to turn it into something else.”

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