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Spreading the workload is key to its pitching success but Arizona softball already faces injury concerns

Arizona softball begins its 50th season on Thursday
Graphic courtesy of Arizona Athletics

New Arizona softball pitching coach Christian Conrad thinks the Wildcats need to be competing to get to the Women’s College World Series every year. In his view, it’s not only tradition but also attainable. To do that, they must get the pitching to perform at its optimum. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they are already behind the eight ball on that.

Senior Devyn Netz is currently being called “day-to-day” with an undisclosed medical issue. Sophomore Sydney Somerndike underwent surgery in the offseason. To make matters worse, the day before the season is set to open, the program announced that freshman Ryan Maddox is out with a season-ending foot injury. She underwent surgery and is in good spirits, according to the press release.

Once she’s available, the Wildcats cannot put such a heavy workload on Netz. When asked how Netz could reach her potential this season, it was the first thing out of Conrad’s mouth.

“Not having to pitch every game,” he said. “I think just her ability to be able to work with the staff that can help support her, too, because I think last year it wasn’t that her stuff wasn’t good. She has very good stuff, and I think she has All-American-level talent. I think it was a matter of she was being overused and was getting tired.”

Her overuse also made it easier to prepare for the Wildcats. Opposing coaches and players knew who would pitch and what she would throw.

“It’s so much easier for a team to only scout one pitcher, so she got overexposed there, too,” Conrad said. “I think you’d see that in some of the Oregon games, especially, and even Washington. You see at these hitters just open up and turn on a rise ball. You can’t do anything about that. They just knew what was coming just because she was the only one that they were really scouting.”

Getting to the point where opponents must scout all seven members of the Arizona pitching staff is why Conrad was hired. His mentor is Florida State’s Lonni Alameda who, despite having All-American caliber pitchers like Kathryn Sandercock on her teams in recent years, believes in using a full staff that complements each other.

Last year, Sandercok pitched six or more innings just nine times in 48 appearances. Netz did it 11 times in 39 appearances. That amounts to Sandercock going the distance or almost the distance in 18.75 percent of her appearances. Netz did it in 28.2 percent of her appearances. When combined with playing first base and hitting, it was a huge ask of the Wildcats’ No. 1 pitcher.

Netz didn’t pitch during fall ball. She is day-to-day to start the season simply because they want her to be fully healthy all season, Conrad said. Somerndike is recovering from surgery that kept her out of fall ball, as well. That leaves the team with four pitchers until Netz is ready to go.

With the Yakkertech and Rapsodo technology and accompanying data they are now using, Conrad believes they will have a better idea of when and how to use different pitchers. That will be important at the beginning of the season with four or later when they might have six. It also helps the pitchers understand why some of the decisions might be made during games.

“I think having honest conversations of where they need to be able to improve from a pitch development point of view has been very helpful,” Conrad said. “And also really helps us understand like how many outs can we get out of each pitcher per outing, kind of anticipating when we need to make pitching changes. So they’ve been really excited about that. And I think it also really helps us with them selling out to just pitching to a defense, too, so they don’t have to feel like they need this minus-eight drop ball in a plus-seven rise. You know, I mean, that’d be great for all of them to have that, but if they just have one of those or something to play off of.”

Showing the pitchers what they’re doing has been a revelation even for some of the older pitchers like transfer Miranda Stoddard and fifth-year righty Ali Blanchard. Conrad said that a given pitcher’s repertoire is not always accurately described. People will claim they have pitches they aren’t really throwing. The technology can point this out. For Stoddard, though, it was the opposite. The technology showed that she could throw a pitch that she was always told was not within her physical abilities.

“She’d been told her whole life because she had this freak accident when she was younger with her wrists that she just never could throw a rise ball,” Conrad said. “She just physically couldn’t throw it. And then we were just playing around one day on the Rapsodo, we’re like, ‘Well let’s just try it. See what happens.’ Like two days later we found out she had a rise ball. She was fast to learn it, and so I thought that was a really cool moment. And then just from that point, she’s like, ‘Wow, I can really move the ball.’ Her competence of pitching has just soared just from that moment, too. So I thought that was a really cool gift to get from it.”

Blanchard is trying to reign in her walks. Conrad believes that is an issue of confidence.

“I think AB a lot of times is a perfectionist, a high-performing person, especially that Princeton girl,” Conrad said. “She’s very tough on herself. So I think just showing her even the data side, you are a really, really good pitcher. You have the stuff to compete at a high level. It’s just being able to trust that. I think that’s freed her to feel like she can throw a little more on the plate, through the zone versus right at the corner. So I think that’s really helped her and we’ve actually seen really huge strides in her in the last few weeks alone.”

The two freshmen are very different both in experience and tendencies. Brooke Mannon is a “flamethrower,” in Conrad’s words. She comes from the Midwest, a part of the country that has been producing some of the top pitching talent in the country in the past few years. She doesn’t have the experience of pitching against top teams all the time, though.

“I think she didn’t really understand the whole being able to create movement,” Conrad said. “I think she got away with throwing a lot of velocity, just gassing people up in Ohio. But I think now that she knows how to be able to work batters, how to pitch to them, her changeup has gotten really, really good too. She had that coming in, but I think just her ability to use that now. She’s striking out some pretty legit hitters, I think, so it’s been really exciting to see her be able to just learn more about the game.”

It’s not all about the tech, though. Sometimes it’s just about growing up.

Aissa Silva came in early last year, pitching as a freshman in college instead of her senior year in high school. Conrad said that the most important thing he has seen from her since the beginning of fall is an understanding of how to behave as a college athlete.

“I have been very proud of her overall development, not only just on the mound but also just as a student-athlete,” he said. “There were some times honestly in the fall where she just was late to a bullpen and I’m like, ‘You can’t do that. You know, it’s unacceptable.’ So have to kick her out of the bullpen. And then I’m like, in my head, I’m thinking she should know this by now. She’s a sophomore. And I’m like, actually, no, this is her first fall. She doesn’t know any better. So I think just her growth on the maturity side has really helped her blossom and just become a better teammate.”

Success won’t be just about the pitching. Defensive shifts will be crucial to the team’s success. Conrad said that they are trying to get the defense to understand as a group what the pitcher is trying to accomplish. That lets the defense and their pitchers work off each other.

“You really can get creative with the shifts and just understand like yes, this might be a laser to the outfield, but we’ve got someone standing right there, you know what I mean?” Conrad said. “So I think just being a little more creative that way has been able to help them versus feeling like they have to just strike out every single batter.”

The pitchers may have to get used to tactics they’re unfamiliar with, too. The fact that they aren’t all the same will dictate some of those tactics.

“The benefit of our staff is that they’re very diverse,” Conrad said. “We’d be in a very different position if we had seven pitchers that all did the same thing. But that’s the beauty of our staff right now. Aissa, we’ve got lefty. I know Ryan’s a lefty, too, but they’re all very different pitchers. And I think AB you know, we’ve got that spin. We’ve got the gas from Brooke. Miranda’s that kind of seasoned pitcher that we’re seeing develop more movement, both north and south. So I think that’s been really exciting.”