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posted: 4/12/2012 10:25 PM

Hitters getting upper hand in softball more than ever

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Melissa Wilson must feel like she's living in a parallel softball universe these days.

Neuqua Valley's young second-year coach is only nine years removed from toeing the rubber at Lake Park. As a senior Wilson went 17-3 with a 0.68 ERA and was part of a pitching staff that threw 10 straight shutouts at one point.

Earlier this spring Wilson watched her Wildcats jump ahead 7-0 after two innings on Benet, then surrender a surreal 13 runs in one inning and lose 17-10. The pitcher in Wilson is still coming to grips with a game she doesn't recognize.

"It's a completely different mentality now," Wilson said. "It's exciting, but it's also scary."

Neuqua is not alone in this new-age world of softball.

Perhaps last year's Class 4A final, where Moline beat St. Charles North 9-8 in the highest-scoring championship game ever, should have served as a warning to what lay ahead. While the new BBCOR bats in baseball trend toward more pitchers' duels, softball seems to be headed in the opposite direction.

In 17 games I've witnessed this spring, I've seen a grand total of three shutouts. I've seen just as many games won by teams scoring 10 runs or more. Of the three shutouts, one came without a single strikeout.

Benet is the poster child of this offense-centric game with downright ridiculous numbers. The Redwings are hitting .448 as a team, their 22 homers in 14 games have already broken their school record of 20, and they are on pace to become the first team in IHSA history to score 500 runs.

"It's such a completely different game," Benet coach Jerry Schilf said. "Honestly, I really don't care for it. All these runs are great for stats, but it's terrible for the kids getting beat up."

Where in the name of Jennie Finch has the dominant pitching gone?

A perfect storm of factors has made it quite a precious commodity this spring.

For one, there's been an exodus of a talented crop of pitching talent in DuPage County. In the last three years the likes of Mary Connolly, Natalie and Alyssa Wunderlich, Colleen Hohman and Allyson Staats have moved on to college. The girls stepping in at their respective high schools are either not as dominant, or they are young and still honing their craft -- or both.

Another factor, clearly, is the mound distance. Two years ago the IHSA moved the distance from home plate to the pitching rubber back from 40 to 43 feet, becoming uniform with the distances in the ASA and NCAA game. That change puts a premium on pitchers who can work both sides of the plate with good movement and add an effective changeup to their repertoire.

Take Downers Grove North's Elaine Heflin, maybe the county's best pitcher, for example. She can dial the heater up north of 60 mph -- but also has tremendous movement and a new changeup to boot.

"I don't think it's a matter that the ace pitcher isn't around anymore, but we've seen an evolution of what an ace is," Lake Park coach Tom Mazzie said. "Ace is not just throwing 65. Sixty-five with no movement and a good changeup is not good enough anymore. You have to be a pitcher now."

Ultimately, all this offense might not even be about the pitching.

Go to any softball game in DuPage County and witness the offensive renaissance. Most every team can hit, and not just the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters.

Twelve primarily position players in the area are already committed to Division I colleges, as opposed to three pitchers.

The hitters, like their pitchers, are practicing more and more and everybody is getting 50-plus games experience in high-level summer travel ball. Mazzie said six of his hitters are going to a hitting coach once a week, 52 weeks a year. One of Schilf's Benet players has had two hitting coaches simultaneously -- one to teach slapping, one hitting away. Two of Benet's best hitters, Stephanie Abello and Emily York, are freshmen.

One coach had a parent of a 9-year-old brag that their daughter can already hit bombs 200-plus feet.

Slapping and relying just on speed? So five years ago.

"It used to be that you get past the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters you can relax," Schilf said. "You can't relax anymore."

Nobody's relaxing.

Wilson's memories from high school were of 1-0 nail-biters with teams like Elk Grove that inevitably came down to a walk or error -- who blinked first.

Now she almost subscribes to the saying that original New York Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert coined that "my idea of a perfect game is when the Yankees score 10 runs in the first inning and gradually pull alway."

"Watching softball may be much more fun," Wilson said, "but in my heart as a coach I always feel so nervous. I never feel we have enough runs. Everyone can hit. If they are not hitting right away, they will toward the end."

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