By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
In high school baseball, teams generally go with a Tuesday and Friday night starting pitcher, while the rest of the arms in the pitching staff are used out of the bullpen for relief. But over on the softball field, the starting pitcher assignment is not written in pencil on the lineup sheet, but rather in ink pen.
Softball is a interesting sport to follow, as those who are accustomed to the intricacies of baseball might be a little dumbfounded by some of the actions on the field. Terms like “slapper” and “rise ball” are used regularly during a contest, and while the fences seem to be close enough to reach out and touch from the bleachers, the 40 feet between the rubber and home plate only outdo the distance to the fences.
But perhaps the most fascinating part of the sport is the role of the starting pitcher. While many teams have a couple that are capable of taking the circle and performing well, almost every team has a designated starter who takes the rubber every game and is asked to earn a win for the team.
No pressure whatsoever, right?
For the three McKinney ISD high school teams, Chelsea Thomas for MHS, Erin Riding for Boyd, and Celeste Verdolivo for North make up the arms called upon every Tuesday and Friday night to help lead their respective programs to victories.
Nothing New For Lionettes’ Thomas
Thomas, a junior who is verbally committed to Missouri State, started playing softball when she was six years old, but didn’t pick up pitching until around 11 or 12. She said the most difficult part was finding time to stay sharp with her defense as well.
“With pitching there is a lot of hard work you have to put in it, but I had to put in more work with that because I played two positions,” Thomas said. “So I would get my work done at third base but then I would have to go out and work on my pitching.”
As Thomas continued to develop as a pitcher, she began throwing in multiple games during a tournament more and more. She said she continued to improve because of this, plus having mom and dad work with her on a consistent basis didn’t hurt as well.
While she battled through some soreness in building up her arm to withstand multiple games in one week, Thomas advised that there is no denying the aches and pains, claiming one cannot jump right into throwing a lot of pitches right out of the gate.
“You have to get used to it because you do get sore from pitching,” she said. “If you just start out of the blue and pitch a lot, you are going to be sore. But if you ease into it you do get used to the soreness.”
Thomas can tell if she is going to have a good game that night or not based on how relaxed she is before. “If I go out there relaxed I feel like I am going to do good,” Thomas said.
The junior pitcher has taken all three of the Lionettes’ district losses this season, as McKinney High was 0-3 in 10-5A heading into Friday night’s contest at Allen. Despite the struggles at times in 2013, Thomas received recognition last season for her back-to-back no hitters last season versus McKinney North and Richardson Pearce last April.
Historic Season for Boyd’s Riding
As for the starter in the other Class 5A school in the city, Riding is having an historic season in the circle for the Boyd Lady Broncos in 2013. The sophomore who verbally committed to the University of Iowa over the winter has a 5A-best 186 strikeouts through Tuesday’s games, as she has amassed an 11-7 record with a 1.36 ERA.
Riding went 19-5 last season for the Lady Broncos as they went a perfect 14-0 in district play and advanced to regional quarterfinal round, the furthest the program had ever gone in its six-year history. But with the likes of Plano East and Plano West on the schedule twice, Riding said the competition is the main motivation to perform well.
“I think it is fun just to play the competition every game,” said Riding. “It is like playing in the state championship game every night, and I just want to go out there and play and do what I love.”
Riding began playing the sport at three years old, admitting that she played on a team called the Bumblebees in the McKinney league. She didn’t start pitching for another five years, but hasn’t stopped since.
“I picked it up pretty quickly,” she said, thanks to the help of summer coach Noble Hansard. “Noble taught me the mental and physical sides of the game, including all the different aspects I hadn’t noticed before.”
The sophomore is regarded as one of the top pitchers in the state, as the Lady Broncos district title hopes are very much dependent on her right arm. When asked what the moment of being in the circle was like, with the pressure of trying to help get your team a victory every night, Riding said she finds a way to get in a certain zone.
“It is just like a tunnel vision. All you see is the catcher and the glove, and you just throw the ball to it. It is the perfect everything. It is awesome,” she said.
Verdolivo On a Roll for McKinney North
McKinney North sophomore Celeste Verdolivo is in her second full season at the varsity level, as she went 11-4 with a 1.94 ERA in 2012. This season, Verdolivo is 8-1 in the circle as she has helped her team get off to a 4-1 start in District 13-4A.
Verdolivo grew up in Rocklin, Cal., and lived there until moving to McKinney when she was 13. She picked up softball around the age of six and began pitching around eight, and said she hasn’t turned back since. The move across country brought several new changes to her life, but she said it might have benefitted her playing career the most.
“I was in California my whole life until I was 13 when I moved out here to Texas, so my new pitching coach helped me with my technique and changed my pitching style. I think moving kind of helped my career a softball player,” Verdolivo said.
While California is a breeding ground for quality softball players, Texas is also regarded as having some of the best players to go onto having good college and professional careers. “McKinney has better softball than where I would have been in California, but as for travel ball it is about the same,” she said.
Verdolivo throws four times a week and says that she has been doing it for so long that endurance is no longer a factor in her workouts. “It is not going to make me tired,” she said.
Despite her age, Verdolivo said she doesn’t get nervous before her starts.
“I just love pitching so much and I am just lucky to be able to pitch every game,” Verdolivo said.
For all three girls, rehabbing after a start consists of a strict routine that allows them to be healthy and ready to go in a matter of days. While Thomas does the normal icing of the shoulder and arm, Riding said she might take a couple of Advil after the game if she had a high pitch count that night, while Verdolivo relies on a “shower and good food” to get her back to full health.
Each player said they accepted their roles on their respective teams and embraced the opportunities. Despite the constant pressure to take the rubber every Tuesday and Friday night and bring your ‘A’ game to the field, the Lionettes, Lady Broncos, and Lady Bulldogs are in good hands with these three young players.