RAMblings 5.13.09 - Carolina Softball On "The Riser"

by Lee Pace


Danielle Spaulding on the mound for the Tar Heels today—could be a long afternoon in the outfield.

            “We should have brought our lawn chairs,” centerfielder Breanna Brown might say to her outfield mates.

            With the 5-foot-10 left-hander from California on the mound, strikeouts are likely to flow. Roughly two of every three batters Spaulding faces go down swinging or looking at her deadly repertoire of screwballs, dropballs, off-speed pitches and, of course, her ace in the hole—the ruthless riseball.

            That’s right—the riseball, softball’s answer to baseball’s slider. The slider goes down, the riser goes up. It’s a pitch delivered underhand with sharp backspin. The ball leaves the pitcher’s hand with the seams aligned horizontally to the ground, and, if delivered with at least 55 miles an hour or thereabouts of speed and enough bite, the seams will dig in the air, battle the force of gravity and cause the ball to pop just before it reaches home plate.

            “It’s a deadly pitch,” says Brown. “It throws people off. Two feet in front of you, it’s still low. But by the time you swing at it, it’s above your hands. It’s fun to watch from centerfield, you can really see it move. Some games we won’t get anything hit out of the infield. If we do, it’s a little blooper.”

            Beverly Smith, the Tar Heels’ associate head coach and pitching coach, says Spaulding uses her strength and athleticism along with excellent technique to befuddle opposing hitters. The riseball is the hardest pitch to master in softball, as it must be thrown fast enough for the rise to ensue, but it takes intricate mechanics to apply the spin while maintaining control.

            “You can see the frustration in the other team,” Smith says. “I would think every team to face Dani knows they are going to see the riseball, and they come in prepared to lay off it. Their coaches are saying, ‘Don’t swing at the rise, don’t swing at anything up, look down.’ I am sure they are going through all those textbook things. Then you get to the box and it looks so good, it looks so fat. But then you are at the decision point and you swing, and the ball jumps right over the bat.”

            Spaulding, a junior, is 20-3 as one of the Tar Heels’ two starting pitchers this season and has notched 323 strikeouts in 154 innings pitched. She has teamed with fellow starter Lisa Norris to provide a deadly one-two starting punch, with both pitchers posting miniscule ERAs—Norris at 1.11 and Spaulding at 1.13. Spaulding is No. 1 in the nation in strikeouts by a wide margin, averaging 14.7 per seven innings with her nearest competition at 10.8, that being Sarah Hamilton of Florida State.

            “I have a lot of confidence with my rise ball,” says Spaulding. “The idea is to get the batter to pop it up. She gets the bottom of the ball as it’s rising or misses it entirely. That’s where most of my strikeouts come from. I throw it probably 80 percent of the time. I am definitely not an overpowering pitcher. My fastball would probably get killed if I threw it in a game. I rely on my ball movement—I am much more of a mechanical pitcher than a hard-thrower.”

But Spaulding is no one-trick pony. She is hitting .296 and leads the Tar Heels in home runs with 10, and when she’s not pitching, she plays first base. She recently became just the second player in ACC history to be named the Player of the Year in back-to-back years.

“I have always prided myself on being more than just a pitcher,” says Spaulding, who was partly attracted to Carolina for its strong academic reputation and excellent program for studying athletic training. “I love playing first base, playing defense and being behind my other pitcher. The girls make fun of me because I don’t like be called a pitcher. I don’t myself as just a pitcher. If I had to chose between them, I wouldn’t know what to do. I love them all. I love being able to help in all aspects of the game.”

Spaulding will lead the Tar Heels into the 64-team NCAA Softball Championship beginning Thursday at Anderson Stadium, located behind the UNC General Administration Building on Hwy. 54. It’s the second straight year the Heels have hosted a regional in their sparkling new complex that officially opened in 2006.

            Carolina, 45-11, is the No. 2 seed in the Chapel Hill regional and will face Campbell at 3:30 p.m. Thursday following the opener between No. 1 seed Georgia and Radford. The double-elimination tournament will continue Friday and Saturday. Winners of 16 regional events advance to the Super Regionals, and those eight victors move on to the College World Series May 28-June 3 at Oklahoma City. The Tar Heels beat Campbell 6-1 in their regular-season encounter in late March.

            “We’re extremely excited with the draw we got,” Spaulding says. “We had Campbell and Georgia in our regional last year, and Campbell took us out. We play them in the regular season every year, and we had no problem with them, but when it counted last year, they beat us. I think we’re ready for them this time.”

            Under 24-year coach Donna Papa, the Tar Heels have participated in the NCAA playoffs seven of the last eight years. Their best advance came in 2005, when they advanced to a regional final before being eliminated.

“We have been underdogs for a long time,” Spaulding says. “This year we’ve definitely shown what we can do. If we play the way we know how to play and can play, we have a very good chance of going a long way.”