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Green: Iowa's pitching staff had little chance from the start

BY CHARLIE GREEN | APRIL 21, 2015 5:00 AM

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Though just 16-33 overall, Iowa softball has clawed its way to a respectable 7-10 Big Ten record.

One area, however, has continued, and will continue, to limit the team this season.

Pitching has been the Achilles heel for the Hawks this year — Iowa’s team ERA of 6.63 ranks last in the Big Ten.

And it’s not the pitching staff’s fault.

“We had a transfer to Creighton, and we had a kid that was signed from Florida that hung up the cleats the summer before she got here,” Looper said. “That’s what kind of put us in a panic to find another pitcher.”

To understand the situation, one needs to understand last season — one in which expected and unexpected departures brewed.

Kayla Massey, the team’s ace in 2014, posted a 2.86 ERA in 28 appearances in her senior campaign. Her graduation left the door open for Shayla Starkenburg and Micaela Whitney to take the reins.

It was Starkenburg’s first year on the team, and her 15 starts and 20 appearances exceeded those of Whitney’s — whose appearances subsequently dropped from her freshman season in 2013.

Perhaps Whitney felt Starkenburg had passed her as the team’s next No. 1 option from the circle — that is unknown.

But whatever the case, Whitney transferred to Creighton, where she has had success  — putting together a 9-7 record and 3.44 ERA in her junior season with the Bluejays.

“I wish her the best, and I’m glad she’s doing well,” head coach Marla Looper said. “You only get so long to play the game, and people transfer for whatever reasons.”

To make matters worse, incoming freshman Koral Smith called it quits last summer, leaving Looper with one real pitcher on the roster in Starkenburg.

To compensate, the team turned to freshman Ashley Yoways and junior transfer Jillian Navarrete in two attempts to assemble a competitive pitching staff.

Yoways, recruited as a middle infielder, has taken the role as the team’s second hurler. To date, she is 2-14 with an 8.50 ERA.

And it’s not her fault.

The Indianapolis native put up stellar numbers as a pitcher in high school but was considered to be a middle infield prospect at the college level, partly because of her ability at the plate. On her travel team, which is where Looper recruited her from, she was the fourth option from the circle, only appearing in a few games and usually doing mop-up duty.

Larry McMillan, Yoways’ coach from sixth grade through high school, expected his former player to be more of an offensive contributor at the next level.

“I saw her as more of a hitter; I know she did not plan on actually pitching,” McMillan said. “At the time, they didn’t even know she was a pitcher.”

As for the Navarrete experiment, it had little chance to begin with. The New Mexico native was recruited out of high school primarily as a pitcher. Her freshman season at Howard College in her home state saw the current junior bat .417 and compile a .760 slugging percentage.

In January of her sophomore year she moved on to Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas, where she hit .333. Although the program’s coach, Doug Chance, had recruited her as a pitcher out of high school, after two years of college ball, the junior had established herself as an offensive asset and solid infielder.

Searching for answers to make up for her losses, Looper looked to Butler for options.

“Basically when Iowa called us, they were desperate for a pitcher,” Chance said. “I said, ‘Look this kid didn’t throw for us very much, but she definitely had some upside potential if she could get back to the level she was throwing at out of high school.’ ”

Chance noted that at 5-9, Navarrete’s size made her an intriguing prospect.

“If you’re going to take a chance on somebody, that’s somebody you would want to take a chance on,” he said.

Navarrete has been the team’s third option behind Yoways and Starkenburg this season, logging one start and 11 appearances. In limited action, the junior has an ERA of 36.00.

She’s pitched only seven innings; it’s not her fault.

And through all of the chaos and trials that have spread from the summer into the spring of 2015, the Hawks can find solace in the fact that their ace appears to be coming into her own.

After struggling to start the season, Starkenburg has been lights-out in April. A 1-hitter on April 1 against Drake set the tone for a month that’s seen her record a 3.69 ERA in 53.1 innings, bringing her season ERA down to 4.64.

The Iowa native has arrived as a cornerstone of the program; it’s definitely not her fault.

Sure, the pitchers can perform better. They can exhibit better control. They can keep pitches lower in the strike zone to avoid fly balls. There’re no excuse for ever giving up 23 (March 14 against Oklahoma) or 19 (March 22 against Maryland) runs in a game. But this isn’t why the team’s pitching has been at or near the bottom of the Big Ten throughout the season.

The whole mess is the result of a poor set of circumstances — one expected and two unexpected departures that were out of the control of the athletes on the current roster.

Next season, Looper hopes the team will be reloaded with new pitching talent. But for now, it’s going to have to ride it out with what it has — which is one legitimate pitcher in the emerging Starkenburg.

“This year was kind of an anomaly with the transfer, and [the other loss],” Looper said. “I’m proud of our staff and what we’ve done, but as a [team], we knew we needed to be better offensively and defensively because of that.”

Follow @CharlsGreen on Twitter for news, updates, and analysis about the Iowa softball team.


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