Although both baseball and softball have averaged over 20 wins a season the past four years, you would be hard-pressed to find many other similarities between the two teams. On the one hand, baseball depends on its nationally ranked offense that averages double-digit runs per game. Softball, on the other hand, relies on its supply of pitchers that has brought opposing batters to their knees.
The difference within the 2004 pitching staff is noticeable as well. Head coach Ruth Kmak has put out a trio of pitchers that have each turned in excellent performances while using a variety of styles. Second-year Hannah Roberts, the staff's ace that was named an All-American her rookie season, relies on jaw-dropping movement that has stunned a number of hitters. She has often been followed by first-year Lauren Hula, a lefty hurler that relies on location low in the zone and off-speed pitches to frustrate opponents into hitting groundballs. First-year Petra Wade has been the team's second starter for a majority of the year. She employs the most overpowering repertoire on the staff and has blown by hitters surprised by the speed.
Kmak has been conscious of using her pitchers' styles to confuse batters and give the Maroons an even bigger edge over less talented teams.
"There's a change up in terms of speed. Hannah's speed is not as quick as Petra's, while Lauren is definitely an off-speed pitcher. We can go in and throw Hannah one game with her balls breaking like crazy. Then Lauren can come in and keep it low to get batters out on their front foot fishing for stuff," Kmak said. "The next game we'll put out Petra, who just shoots in there. The complementarity between them is a great thing."
This young group of pitchers has led the Maroons to what should be a second consecutive NCAA postseason run and fourth in five years. The trio of Roberts, Wade, and Hula combined for a 0.64 ERA this season, earning them the fourth spot in the nation on the most recent list. In many of their 26 wins, 8 of which were by one run, the team has needed every bit of the staff's efforts to make up for its spotty offense.
"They have a lot of pressure because their offense doesn't score. But I think that our pitching staff gives our team that confidence that we know we'll hold a team defensively, they're not going to score," Kmak said. "Whenever we get around to hitting we'll score our run and be fine. Our pitchers hate us for it. They always say Can you score us some runs? It would make it a lot easier for us.'"
The dominance of Roberts, who this season threw 62.1 consecutive scoreless innings, has been difficult to keep hidden in softball circles ever since she broke on to the scene last year. Although Kmak and others knew that she would be a great pitcher, she exceeded everyone's expectations by breaking the school's single-season ERA record with a mark of 0.61. She has been near perfect this year with a 0.15 ERA.
Almost as soon as her rookie season got underway, she was thrown into a leadership role on the field because of her performance. This year, as she has truly begun to grow into the role, she has been essential in helping the other pitchers grow.
"Hannah started out the season a little bit nervous for the first time ever. I think it may have had to do with expectations because she had such an amazing rookie year," second-year catcher Randi Leppla said. "She had no need to be worried though, and she has been just as incredible this year after she started playing her game."
One wouldn't know that the modest Roberts is the team's star by talking with her. Always quick to deflect praise to her teammates, particularly the catchers, she reveals herself as the ideal teammate that considers herself to be just one component.
"It's great working behind Hannah because she gives us great motivation. She never makes Laura and I feel like we're under her. She always makes us feel like we're right up there with her, and it's a great feeling to know that there's someone to fall back on," Wade said. "If I'm not on my game, it's not the end of the world. There's always a pitcher just as strong or stronger behind me."
As different as the three pitchers' styles are, their personalities may be even more varied. Hula, an admitted perfectionist, contrasts with the just-happy-to-be-here Wade, who contributed earlier than even she expected, and the leader-by-example Roberts. They mesh together extremely well, and their loose attitudes show in their close relationships with each other and their catchers.
"I think we all have a good understanding that we need each other on the team. There's no way that one of us or two of us could do this by ourselves," Roberts said. "Especially when we get to the postseason, we need to have an entire pitching staff. We want to do well for each other."
"Sometimes we'll throw batting practice for two hours, so we always joke what percent effort are we going to put in today?' By the end we're down to 20 percent," Wade said with a laugh. "I'm probably the closest with the pitchers and catchers because we always get thrown off together. There's not any competition at all."
Hula came in to the program off of knee surgery, which gave her a late start in the off-season. After missing all of her senior year in high school, she had to go from not even being able to run in the fall to being the Maroons' top reliever.
"The knee injury has definitely affected me this year. In the fall, I was still going through a lot of physical therapy for the knee. They weren't sure what took so long," said Hula. "I wasn't able to fully be myself until mid-winter." She has bounced back tremendously and has given Kmak a lot of confidence in her ability to mix things up.
Wade's season has also been the product of a long winter that saw her built back up from scratch. Assistant coach and former Maroon pitcher Kelly Ostler was instrumental improving the hard-throwing Wade's mechanics.
"It was a little frustrating because I came in and Kelly changed everything. I don't throw even one pitch the same way," Wade said. "It was really frustrating over the winter because there were times when I felt I couldn't do it. Everything gets worse before it gets better. Now I can see that all the work helped."
The changes have helped Wade use consistent deliveries for all her pitchers in order to prevent batters from knowing what's coming. Although she is not throwing harder than she did before, her new mechanics will give her the potential to do so. Kmak identifies her as one who "hasn't even realized her potential."
The pitchers have rightfully gotten much of the credit for the success of this year's team, but they have been helped tremendously by the work of their battery mates behind the plate. Kmak set up personal catchers for both starters--Leppla catches Roberts, and third-year Annie Yaniga catches Wadeso that the catchers could learn their pitchers and help them make adjustments during a game.
Leppla and Roberts have had the advantage of working with each other for two years. During one game last year, Roberts neglected to check Leppla's sign before starting her delivery, assuming that the call was going to be for a changeup. As the pitch traveled to the plate, Roberts was worried that she had thrown the wrong pitch, but the two were clearly on the same wavelength. Leppla caught the pitch without surprise.
"Hannah is an amazing pitcher and I am so lucky to have the opportunity to catch for her. Her talent makes my job much easier and also enjoyable because she's not only a great pitcher but a great person and friend," Leppla said.
"I think Randi and I have started to really work well together," Roberts said. "We did last year, but I think now we really understand the batters we face."
Wade and Yaniga have developed a similar relationship this year, which any fan could see from the stands. They flash smiles at each other, and Yaniga always makes sure to remind Wade to "brush her shoulders off" when she's in a jam. Wade has responded as an incredibly cool-headed pitcher despite learning as she goes.
"Working with Petra has been amazing. She has a good head on her shoulders and knows what she needs to do to win. Especially for a freshman, she works amazingly well under pressure and has the type of attitude that usually only comes with experience," Yaniga said. "We've developed an amazing bond this season. I've been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to watch her improve her skill and her presence on the field the last few months."
Both catchers praise all three pitchers as matching up against any rotation in the nation.
Kmak, who has coached the Maroons since 2001, has benefited from a solid pitching staff that has gotten better each year. In 2001 and 2002, Ostler and Megan Kunz combined for ERAs of 1.54 and 1.30. Last year, Roberts teamed with Kunz for a 0.89 mark that has dipped even further to this year's 0.64.
"People now contact us, as opposed to us contacting them. People want to play for us. Look at Ostler, Roberts, and Wade. They could all be amazing Division I pitchers," Kmak said.
This year's trio is exemplary of the model Maroon student-athlete. All three pitchers boast GPAs over 3.5, and they were all receptive to the University of Chicago's combination of academics and athletics, according to Kmak.
Despite being nationally ranked all season, softball's postseason hopes still lay at the hands of the NCAA, which will make its decision May 3. One thing is certain: If the selection committee gives the Maroons the opportunity, the pitching staff will make waves. Strikeout victims 1 through 287 can attest to that.