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Spring sports preview: Art & Science of Pitching

Prep softball pitchers develop more than speed to put spin on success

By , Columbian staff writer
5 Photos
Ridgefield senior Kaia Oliver, left, and Woodland senior Olivia Grey, right, are pictured at Ridgefield High School on Tuesday, March 12, 2019.
Ridgefield senior Kaia Oliver, left, and Woodland senior Olivia Grey, right, are pictured at Ridgefield High School on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

For high school softball pitchers, it’s all about the spin.

Woodland’s Olivia Grey and Ridgefield’s Kaia Oliver — two of the state’s top pitchers bound for NCAA Division I softball programs next year — say pitching is just as much sweet science as it is art.

“It’s an amazing thing,” said Oliver, a Syracuse signee.

The long reign of hard-throwing hurlers might’ve ended when the high school softball pitching rubber moved back 3 feet — from 40 feet to 43 — nationwide in 2011. The move came from the National Federation for State High School Associations to help create more offense in a game that favored dominant pitchers.

Initially, it made things tougher on pitchers and easier on hitters in the years that followed. But lately, pitchers have regained some of that dominance with an increase in strikeouts, and fewer hits and runs allowed.

In other words, pitchers have mastered 43 feet.

Oliver and Grey are no exception. They happen to be two of the state’s best. They also happen to compete in the same league and, again in 2019, will duel it out for 2A Greater St. Helens League supremacy.

Grey, a Portland State signee, helped Woodland win its second softball state title with an undefeated 2018 season, striking out 380 batters, including 69 in four state games, and finishing with a 0.80 earned-run average. Grey threw a complete-game, no-hitter in her Beavers debut last spring.

Oliver is in her fourth year as the Spudders’ starting pitcher. She struck out 115 batters and had a 1.49 ERA leading Ridgefield back to the state tournament last spring.

With Oliver and Grey in particular, batters can always expect the unexpected.

‘Making that adjustment’

Ridgefield coach Dusty Anchors is in his third year coaching the Spudders, and has coached softball at the club and high school levels for 20 years. He was in favor of the pitching circle moving back 3 feet, a move made voluntarily in 2010 by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association one year before the mandatory date nationwide. Anchors was head coach of Bremerton’s Olympic High softball team at the time.

“Anything to make the sport better,” the coach said.

Anchors said small adjustments were made by both sides — hitters and pitchers — but the additional 3 feet didn’t make much of a difference.

“If you can throw 40 feet,” he said, “you can throw 43 feet. It’s about making that adjustment.

The same goes for the hitters: adjusting their swing seeing the ball for what Anchors said is one-tenth of a second longer for that additional 3 feet to the plate.

The current generation of high school pitchers is accustomed to throwing the 43-foot distance to home plate.

In youth softball, the pitching circle is 30 feet from home plate at 8-and-under, and moves back 5 feet for the next two age groups. By 14U, they’re throwing from 43 feet, the current distance for high school, college and professional levels.

For pitchers like Oliver, throughout youth ball adjustments took a bit of time to acclimate to the new pitching distances, she said.

Until 14U, Oliver overpowered hitters with two pitches — fastballs and change-ups. Eventually, batters caught up, and she added new spins. The drop ball came next. It’s one she says is her favorite pitch to throw.

“It’s probably my most efficient pitch,” she said.

Speed and movement

For hitters, that fraction of a second, the final 3 feet to home plate, also can make all the difference, said Jessica Flanagan, now a junior utility player at Portland State.

“They’re jumping up just as much as you’re jumping up,” she said.

Flanagan was a four-year all-league high school player at Woodland from 2013-16 and a three-year starting catcher. At Woodland, she caught for pitchers Madi Sorensen, Nicholette Nesbitt and Haylee Michaud, a trio who had their own styles, she said.

Now hitting better than .300 for the Vikings, Flanagan notes how big that final 3 feet is when a pitch comes to the plate that combines velocity and spin, especially facing pitchers from the Pacific-12 Conference, she said. Portland State hosts Oregon State in a doubleheader April 3 in Hillsboro and travels to Oregon later in April.

“They have speed,” Flanagan said, “but they also have movement and that movement is huge. If you have a pitch coming in fast and moving, it’s a lot harder to hit.”

Dominance came early

More pitchers hone their craft year-round through club ball and private instruction, and Oliver and Grey are no exceptions. And once a fastball is mastered, next is learning how to make the ball spin, or move. Those are the deceptive pitches: curveball, change-up, rise ball, drop ball.

Even at the 12U level, Oliver at Ridgefield overpowered hitters with her fastball’s velocity, but also had an equally effective changeup.

“To this day,” Oliver said, “I throw the same one. That pitch was so nasty. I’d get girls on it all the time.”

Not much has changed for Ridgefield’s four-year pitcher, who committed to Syracuse her freshman year. She throws 64 mph, and relies a lot on her off-speed for movement, placement and to keep batters guessing.

For Grey at Woodland, she didn’t get her start at pitcher while growing up in California. Grey was a catcher, then saw time in the infield. The pitching circle quickly drew her in.

“I was one of those people that thinks everyone should have an equal shot,” Grey said, “and I never got my shot. I wanted to try it and it’s been a whole other level of love ever since.”

Grey calls herself a finesse pitcher. She’s 6 feet tall, throws between 60-65 mph, and can throw seven pitches: fastball, change up, curveball, riseball, backdoor curveball, drop ball, and off-speed drop ball.

While she doesn’t emphasize throwing hard — “I see myself as more of someone not knowing what’s coming next (to batters),” she said — Grey focuses on what she calls throwing top three pitches.

“That’s all you really need,” she said. “As long as you change the plan and the view of the ball and change speed, honestly, you’ll get any batter.

“You have to set yourself apart.”

Oliver agrees.

“I focus on a couple of pitches,” she said, “to be really good at those pitches compared to have a lot of pitches and not being very good at them.”

At one time, Oliver and Grey were teammates for the Portland-based NW Bullets softball club team. The two also bring out the best in each other, now facing off at least twice a year in the regular season. Last year, they split their two regular-season meetings, including Ridgefield’s 4-3 10-inning thriller behind Oliver’s 17 strikeouts.

Expect more of the same in 2019. The two teams face off at Woodland April 17 and at Ridgefield May 3.

And with pitchers who go beyond throwing by perfecting the art and science of pitching.

“At the end of the day,” Grey said, “anyone can catch up to speed.”