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Prep softball's change gets mixed results

One yard. Three feet. Thirty-six inches. It doesn't sound like much, but it could be the distance that decides which teams advance to the state softball tournament. The Minnesota State High School League moved the distance from the pitching mound...

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One yard. Three feet. Thirty-six inches.

It doesn't sound like much, but it could be the distance that decides which teams advance to the state softball tournament.

The Minnesota State High School League moved the distance from the pitching mound to home plate from 40 to 43 feet last summer, using the standardized NCAA distance, in an effort to reduce pitchers' dominance in the sport and improve safety.

Coaches and pitchers vary on their viewpoints but the general consensus is that the rule change has favored hitters, and even quality teams might struggle once section playoffs begin today if they don't have pitchers experienced enough at throwing from the increased distance.

"I definitely think there's more hitting," said longtime Hermantown coach Tom Bang, whose team is no longer a lock in Section 7AA after winning it nine consecutive times. "It seems that the third time through the batting order, hitters are able to see the ball better. There seem to be more hits and kids swing at fewer marginal pitches. They recognize if a pitch is out of the zone and let it go."

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Grand Rapids senior Anya Olson acknowledges it was difficult adapting to the move and says it changed how pitchers approach facing hitters.

"At the beginning (of the season) it was a problem. This winter I didn't get as much practice at 43 feet as I probably should have, but I think it's working out now," she said. "(Batters) have more time to react, so you have to change speeds and locations."

Thunderhawks coach Lee Alto says precision has become just as important as power.

"She's not as quick from 43 as she was from 40," Alto said, "but she's starting to figure out how to get more movement on her ball that wasn't there at the beginning of the season. She's figuring out that location makes such a big difference."

Judging from fourth-ranked Cherry-Cotton's 19-1 record, the top-seeded Section 7A team hasn't had many problems this season. But coach Darrell Bjerklie says the sport has become more unpredictable and that strategy and scouting have become more integral.

"Your defense has to be solid and you have to focus on your defensive play because more balls are going to be put into play," he said. "You have to be know that (opponents) are going to score runs. The game changed.

"Overall, it's probably going to help the game and help our pitchers for moving to the next level. But it takes time to adjust."

Silver Bay coach Mike Guzzo's team has been a consistent Section 7A contender for several years, but he says the added distance has made it tougher on teams without a dominating hurler. His team blew a 13-6 sixth-inning lead to Cook County and lost 14-13 earlier this season.

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"I always figured the difference between the good teams would be who can hit because everybody was good at pitching," he said. "What you are finding now is the dominating pitchers ... can still get their double-digit strikeouts, but unfortunately we only get five or six strikeouts a game. If you make any mistakes, the runs will get in. It's created a lot more offense if you don't have a dominating pitcher."

Even some hard-throwing pitchers have trouble getting through all seven innings unscathed.

Hermantown sophomore Katie Thun was Megan Mullen's understudy a year ago. Mullen usually posted double-digit strikeout totals -- she set the state record of 31 in a 12-inning game -- and often became stronger as a game went along.

Thun, while still recording high strikeout totals, has found it difficult to get through a lineup three times.

"She's had games where she's been dominant through the fifth inning and all of a sudden in the sixth or seventh, the ball's being hit pretty good around the ballpark," Bang said.

"Batters seem to catch up by the end of games," Thun said.

But not everyone has been affected.

Duluth Central sophomore Sarah Hendrickson said she heard a rumor a year before the rule change went into effect and began throwing at 43 feet to her father, Jeff, during the winters.

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"Then it just came naturally pitching from 43 feet," she said. "I find it easier to pitch from 43 feet because with my different pitches, it moves better across the plate than it would at 40 feet. It gives it that extra 3 feet to move."

Hendrickson, who throws a fastball, changeup, dropball, riseball and screwball, obviously hasn't had many problems adapting. She posted an 11-2 record with a 1.31 ERA and 98 strikeouts for the Trojans (17-2).

"Because she's used to 43 feet, she has a better idea of how to find her spots," Central coach Dick Swanson said. "Pitching is about timing, it's not all speed."

Conversely, Hendrickson, who is second on the team with a .484 batting average, says it's helped her at the plate.

"That extra 3 feet gives you that extra (fraction of a) second to look at the ball," she said. "I find myself hitting better this year than I did last year."

Two Harbors junior Madison Olson also is one of the few who may be stronger at 43 feet. With 206 strikeouts, she's more than doubled total from 2010.

"I haven't even really noticed it," said Olson, who generally throws fastball, curveball, changeup and screwball. "In the winter time, my dad and I lengthened (the distance) in our basement, where we practice, so I didn't even notice it in the spring."

Once Two Harbors coach Julie Benson saw Olson at spring practice, she knew pitching would be one of the Agates' strengths.

"She's one of the hardest working players that I've known, and she worked hard at her skill," Benson said. "She spent a lot of time working on mastering the different pitches. She's throwing stronger this year than last year."

So, ironically enough, while the rule change was supposed to make pitchers less dominating, it may have increased their importance.

Related Topics: GRAND RAPIDSHERMANTOWN
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