February 1, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State softball coach Jay Miller never has had the luxury of having a pitcher as dominating as Monica Abbott or Cat Osterman.
The former University of Tennessee and Texas left-handers struck out more than 4,700 batters between them and made careers out of making 1-0 leads stand up.
And while bat and ball technologies have helped offenses in Division I college softball improve, a standout pitcher still can lead a team to the College World Series.
The Mississippi State softball program might not have one pitcher like Abbott or Osterman, the Division I all-time leaders in strikeouts, as it prepares for the 2009 season, but Miller believes the four pitchers on this year''s staff can dominate as well as one.
"This is the best pitching staff we have had since I have been here, far and away," Miller said.
Senior Kelsey Nurnberg, sophomores Misty Flesher and Elizabeth Woolven, and freshman Lindsey Dunlap give Mississippi State reason to believe it can improve on last season''s 41-22 finish and earn another invitation to the NCAA tournament, its eighth overall.
Last season, Nurnberg and Flesher played key roles in helping the Lady Bulldogs'' record their second most successful season in terms of victories (44 in 2000).
Flesher, a right-hander, pitched in pain all season but led the team with a 20-10 record and a 2.11 ERA.
Nurnberg, another right-hander, finished 17-10 with a 2.26 ERA.
Both pitchers made 38 appearances and were part of a staff that had an ERA of 2.21, the sixth best mark in the Southeastern Conference.
Florida (0.92) and Alabama (1.56) led the SEC in ERA and rode the strength of their pitching staffs to the College World Series.
Flesher and Nurnberg share Miller''s confidence that this year''s staff has the ability to help the Lady Bulldogs be even better this year.
"We know we have four really good pitchers," Flesher said. "If one of us is struggling the other three are going to be there and back each other up. We''re always there for each other. We get along great. It is a really good feeling going into it."
Flesher pitched last season with a torn labrum in her right shoulder. She said she felt pain every pitch that was the worst she has ever felt. She opted not to have surgery, though, because she felt she could pitch through the pain and that she didn''t want to disappoint anyone or to let anyone down.
"I am looking forward to this season because not only do I have a year under my belt, but we also are all healthy," Flesher said. "It is a really exciting year. I think we can look for big things to come."
Miller said he talked with Flesher and her family and agreed she could pitch last season if she was effective and she could put up with the pain.
Now that Flesher is healthy, Miller feels she will be even better.
Last year, she struck out 119 in 179 1/3 innings, had six shutouts, and 16 complete games.
"Misty did a great job for us last season as a freshman," Miller said. "She fought a sore arm all year and having her healthy this year I see her really stepping up and dominating even more."
Nurnberg struck out 98 in 173 1/3 innings. She had four shutouts and 15 complete games.
Miller said Nurnberg, who might be the hardest thrower on the staff, improved tremendously from her sophomore to her junior year. He believes she can make a similar progression from her junior to senior season.
"As one of our two seniors, she has been a great leader for us," Miller said. "She is a great teammate. I see her becoming more mature, having better command of her pitches. She always has thrown hard and had great movement. The things that got her in trouble was when she would go through wild spells. I see fewer and fewer of those."
Nurnberg said the unspoken respect the pitchers have for each other will help them to learn from each other and to support each other through the ups and downs in one of the nation''s toughest conferences.
"I really am excited to see how we can put that attitude to the field," Nurnberg said. "It is the same thing in workouts, if one person goes down I can trust that every one of my teammates will pick that person up. We just really jelled (in the preseason workouts). The expectation has already been surpassed because of the team and along with the attitude they brought along with it."
Miller said the left-handed Dunlap, who was the top pitcher in the fall season, and the left-handed Woolven (4-2, 2.35 ERA last season), who also is healthy after being injured in 2008, will provide valuable depth and the additional potential to dominate.
He said the Lady Bulldogs won''t enter the season with a No. 1 or a No. 2 pitcher, and will go with the pitcher(s) who is the most effective for as long as they can.
"I think we have some kids who can dominate in the SEC," Miller said. "What it comes down to is who is getting them out."
Mississippi State plays Kennesaw State at 3 p.m. Friday in its first game of the season-opening Bulldog Round Robin. The two-day event also will feature Louisiana-Monroe and Iona.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.