National Pro Fastpitch is in full swing and former Arizona Wildcats ace Danielle O’Toole has emerged as the top pitcher in the six-team league.
Now in her third season in NPF, O’Toole is 2-0 with a league-best 0.70 ERA, helping the Chicago Bandits jump out to a 6-3 start.
Later in the summer, O’Toole hopes to join former UA teammate Taylor McQuillin on the Mexican National Team as it tries to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
O’Toole previously played for Team USA, but did not make the 2019 roster. Her switch to Mexico is still pending approval by the WBSC.
After graduating from Arizona in 2017, the former All-American spent two seasons as the pitching coach at the University of San Diego, though she will not be returning for a third season.
We caught up with O’Toole to talk NPF, her future, her go-to In-N-Out order, and more. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
How does the competition in NPF compare to college softball?
“The competition is a lot harder. It’s gotten a lot harder the last couple years, which is great. I always paid attention in college to who is who and I remember a lot so it’s nice because I have faced everyone at one point or another. Everyone’s got some kind of accolade and everyone’s really good, so it’s difficult. But it’s good, I enjoy the challenge.”
I read that NPF players are with their teams seven days a week, so how does that work?
“Yeah, they house us. The city of Rosemont houses us. Right now they have us in apartments. I live with (former Florida pitcher) Kelly Barnhill. The whole building is Bandits. I appreciate the city, the mayor, and our GM for taking care of us like that.”
The Women’s College World Series had historic ratings this year and college softball’s popularity seems to be at an all-time high. That interest hasn’t seemed to carry over to the NPF. What challenges does the league face?
“I think people don’t know about it. Some of their favorite players from college are still playing. FloSoftball picked us up, which is a great thing for us.
“I don’t feel like ‘oh, how dare you not know?’ I don’t feel that way. I know that even my parents have had some questions. When I entered the league they definitely knew about it, but some people just don’t know. Social media has really grown a lot the past few years, and our parents’ generation is just starting to get on board. Some of the older generation isn’t as advanced in their knowledge and the NPF news is heavily based on social media. We are trying to push it towards all generations, because we know how much people love college softball. The league is in its 15th year, and the MLB is in its 150th... People today expect things to be at their fingertips and move quickly. We are here slowly growing and hope to be around so when my kids want to play professionally there will be a successful league.”
When NPF is not in season what do most players do?
“A lot of people coach. A lot of people give lessons, they run camps or clinics, which is what I’ll be doing this coming fall and spring. Or a lot of us are in school for masters (degrees) or as grad assistants. I would not say that a lot of us have regular jobs... It’s just hard to find somebody who’s willing to give you that time off, and softball people are always willing to give you the time.”
(Note: you can sign up for O’Toole’s clinics at danielleotoole.com/lessons and you can reach her there or at firstname.lastname@example.org for inquiries on lessons, clinics, or appearances.)
What makes you want to keep playing softball?
“It’s hard to let go. I do love this sport, but as I’m getting a little bit older my love has transitioned into a love of learning. I love to play, but I’ve noticed over the past few years that my love is now learning the game and trying to understand it in ways that are not mine.”
What kind of things did you do in your role at USD?
“I had a really good experience in terms of learning how to do things and learning how to make better choices and make better conversations. I’ve always been flat and very to the point. And I had to learn how to adjust the conversations because not everybody responds to that. My day-to-day stuff was very minimal in regards to game week. I’m on film constantly looking for everything. Our league does not have a lot of film like the Pac-12 or SEC does, so I’m looking for absolutely anything I can get my hands on, scouting reports etc.”
Since you’re not returning to USD, what’s next for you?
“There’s a lot of stuff going on. I’m getting married in September and then Tony (her fiancé) has some stuff that he has going on throughout the year. So in regards to coaching, I’m kind of waiting until next summer to figure what I’m going to do because a coaching position is going to open up and I’m not afraid to move away from my home.”
How much longer do you plan on playing?
“To be honest, I think I’ll be done after the Olympics next year. I’ve been thinking about it for a couple years now and after that i will be ready to start my life. I’ll be married for a year by that point. I think it’s going to be very difficult. Softball has been in my life for 21 years. How do you just stop? But I have had a dream, an Olympic dream since I was 8, and if I do go it will be full circle and I’ll have an easier time saying goodbye. My body is tired, I am always hurt or something, so that part makes it easier too. But I’m excited for the next part of my life to be a wife and to have kids and to be a mom.”
What did you think of Arizona returning to the WCWS?
“I thought it was awesome. I had tears in my eyes a few times. A lot of us kept up the whole year. I’m so happy that they did that, and I’m so happy that they did it for Coach (Mike Candrea).”
What is special about playing for Coach Candrea?
“He makes this connection with you that you didn’t know you needed. He did everything for me and he’d do anything for his players. Anything I needed, he was always like ‘come talk to me.’ His door is always open and it’s such a huge deal, especially if you’re stuck or you don’t really want to tell your friends. He’s a very big figure in my life still, and I hope he’ll be there for the remainder. He is so special and he knows so much. You just respect how when he talks it makes sense. He’s just such a good person.”
How often do you talk to him?
“Before the summer, I would probably call him every couple of months. And then I went to the (Stanford) game and he was like, ‘you don’t call me.’ And I was like ‘do you want me to call you about my problems?’ as a joke. And he was like, ‘yeah.’ So as of late, I’ve been on the phone with him often. Like maybe every couple weeks.”
How do you think the new Hillenbrand Stadium will help the program?
“I think right now people want big. They want to be impressed. I’m not saying that’s how it should be. You should go where you love, but people tend to fall in love with the bigger side of the sport, and that’s not a bad thing. I never dreamed of playing somewhere huge, somewhere where there’s bunches of people. And then I got to Arizona and I was like, ‘oh my gosh this is so different, this is amazing.’ So I’m excited for the future of that program because I know people will just flock to there, they’ll flock to (Candrea), and they’ll flock to the tradition.”
Since you are a big fan of In-N-Out (and have unsuccessfully tried to get sponsored by them), I need to ask what your go-to order is...
“A double-double, no onions. I don’t like onion on my burger. Cheese fries or regular fries. It just depends on the mood. Then a chocolate shake or a Neapolitan shake depending on what type of fries I get. I am currently going through something weird where I’m recently lactose intolerant, so I have to be careful getting a milkshake or cheese fries. I don’t go as much as I used to, so when I do go it’s worth it!”