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Veteran catcher mentors young pitchers

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | APRIL 01, 2011 7:20 AM

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Chelsea Lyon was struggling.

After holding Stetson batters to two hits and no runs over the game’s first four innings on March 15, things fell apart in the fifth for the Hawkeye sophomore pitcher. She opened the inning by walking a batter, who went to second on a sacrifice bunt. A single to left field and a wild throw from first basemen Stephanie Ochoa allowed a run to score. A single up the middle scored another run, tying the game at 2.

What happened next, head coach Marla Looper said, was “a big turning point of our season.”

Looper watched as junior catcher Liz Watkins jogged out to the pitching circle and had an animated discussion with Lyon. Watkins then returned to the plate, and Lyon struck out the next batter to end the inning. Iowa won 3-2.

“Chelsea settled down, and the next inning, it was like nothing ever happened,” Looper said. “And our pitchers kind of turned a corner then.”

Iowa’s pair of pitchers are a freshman — Kayla Massey — and Lyon, a sophomore. Watkins said part of her duty as a catcher is to help the team’s young staff grow and adapt to the college game.

“As a catcher, that’s part of your job description,” the two-time All-Big Ten selection said. “Working one-on-one with the pitchers, you know what to expect out of them. It’s just the leadership role on the field.”

Before the game against Stetson, Looper said, there was uneasiness among the pitching staff and their coaches and catchers. Watkins this year is calling the pitches for the first time as a Hawkeye. Looper said the young pitchers didn’t feel comfortable “shaking her off.”

Watkins, the pitchers, and the coaching staff gathered for a meeting a week before the Stetson game and reached what Looper called “a comfort level.”

Massey said Watkins has played a big part in her adjustment to college pitching and the catcher’s trips to the mound help her when she’s struggling.

“It slows the game down, so you kind of take a step back and then you can refocus,” Massey said. “It helps me as a pitcher knowing that someone behind the plate is thinking the game, and it takes a lot off my shoulders.”

Watkins said she approaches the pitching-circle visits differently for each pitcher. Lyon, she said, needs to smile and relax when times are tough. So Watkins sometimes points out the funny shape of a cloud.

Massey, on the other hand, is all business and usually just needs, as Looper put it, “a good solid kick in the rear.”

Iowa’s first-year head coach has seen Watkins grow this year, as a hitter — Watkins has hit seven home runs — and as a catcher. That’s why Looper gave Watkins the responsibility of calling the games.

“It’s hard to feel like you’re in control if the coach is telling you what to do,” Looper said. “I opened that up for her, and she’s become a more complete player.”

It’s resulted in a trust between Watkins and her pitchers that has helped Iowa win its last five games.
“As long as she tells me what to do,” Massey said, “I’ll just do it.”


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