February 11, 2010 9:26:00 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Misty Flesher doesn''t like to sit still.
She also doesn''t like to do nothing, so imagine her predicament when she encountered more pain in her shoulder at the start of the 2009 season and ultimately was forced to shut it down after only appearing in four games.
"It was very hard to sit there and watch knowing I was a pitcher and that in my mind I thought I could help," Flesher said. "Knowing I could do nothing was very, very hard."
Nearly a year later, Flesher has been pain free since July and is anxious to turn the disappointment of last season into an opportunity this season to help the Mississippi State softball team reach its potential.
Flesher and the Bulldogs will kick off the 2010 season at 3 p.m. Friday when they play host to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in their first game of the Bulldog Round-Robin. The three-day, four-team tournament also will feature Stephen F. Austin and North Texas.
Flesher likely will start in the circle at some point for MSU, which is coming off a 28-28 season and a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Bulldogs reached the postseason despite having Flesher go down after only 7 1/3 innings and left-hander Elizabeth Woolven pitch in just 13 games before she was injured.
As a result, freshman Lindsey Dunlap (17-16, 217 2/3 innings) and senior Kelsey Nurnberg (11-10, 124 1/3) were forced to shoulder all of the innings. The work load was a key reason MSU had a team ERA of 3.74 and allowed 402 hits in 368 2/3 innings last season. The Bulldogs'' ERA ranked 194th in the nation.
MSU coach Jay Miller said Dunlap did a "tremendous" job and just got a little tired because she had to throw too many innings.
"Hopefully now not only with Misty back healthy Lindsey is throwing very well and we have two freshmen, who I think will be able to give us quality innings and quality starts and take the burden off the other arms," Miller said. "I think for the first time since I have been here we have a staff not just a No. 1 pitcher and everybody else to fill in."
The Bulldogs'' 2009 pitching statistics figure to change with the return of a healthy and pain free Flesher, a redshirt sophomore right-hander. The Bulldogs also enter the season with Dunlap, Woolven, and freshmen Kylie Vry and Stephanie Becker as part of a pitching staff that could be the deepest Miller has had entering his eighth season in Starkville.
Miller thought the group he had last year could be as deep, but he knows injuries have a way of foiling plans. He is excited to have Flesher back, and hopes she and the rest of the pitchers can stay healthy.
"This is the first time in two years, really, (Flesher) has been throwing pain free," Miller said. "I think she is back to where she was as a freshman, probably ahead of that. She is throwing harder. She has good movement. She is probably not quite as sharp as she needs to be right now, but that will come once we start playing games."
Miller said Flesher threw in pain all year as a freshman. Still, she led the Bulldogs with a 20-10 record and had an ERA of 2.11.
Flesher opted not to have surgery on a torn labrum in her right shoulder and said she had pain every time she threw a pitch. Looking back, she said Wednesday she pushed herself more than she should have last year and didn''t give her body the time it needed to heal.
This season, she is pain free and stronger physically and mentally, thanks in part to work with Richard Akins, the team''s new strength and conditioning coach, and Karen Johns, the team''s new pitching coach.
"My freshman year, I would throw a curveball or something inside and I would have extreme amounts of pain," Flesher said. "When I would feel that pain I would know that pain would be there and I always had a little bit of pressure on myself and doubt in my head. I don''t have that anymore. When I throw that pitch you''re going to get my 100 percent best. I am going to be fine now that I don''t have pain when I am going to throw."
Flesher''s return will give the Bulldogs two pitchers who have pitched in the NCAA tournament.
Miller also said the depth of the pitching staff will give him the luxury of not having to stick with one pitcher for an extended period of time.
"I am hoping we can pitch a little more by committee and not rely on one person to take the brunt of things," Miller said.
MSU senior catcher Chelsea Bramlett is anxious to catch Flesher again. She also feels the Bulldogs have plenty of pieces to help them contend for a conference title and another trip to the NCAA tournament.
"We have very high expectations," said Bramlett, a three-time First-Team All-American. "We have depth everywhere. We''re young, but I think we''re still making good strides. We showed a lot of good things in the fall. I think our big thing last year was we just didn''t have enough pitchers. To go from one to five is a big difference, and all of them are good. I think they all are going to help us out."
Flesher is equally optimistic about the team''s chances. Now she hopes she can put to use some of what she learned last season while watching all of those games.
"I think we have a really great team and I know we''re all looking forward to the start of the season Friday," Flesher said. "As far as personal goals, I want to stay healthy and at least accomplish what I did my freshman year. I think this team is very capable of winning the SEC and winning SEC tournament and getting to regionals. We have really high expectations. We are really excited."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.