Saks product Taylor West, now a freshman at JSU, pitches against Georgia State on Wednesday at Jacksonville. (Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
– If college softball is a game dominated by the teams with the strongest pitching, then Jacksonville State is fully engaged in the arms race.
While most teams on the mid-major level hope to have two or three pitchers they can lean on -- and often settle for one -- the Gamecocks have a stockpile of seven reliable arms ready at a moment’s notice.
They are so deep in the circle, in fact, JSU head coach Jana McGinnis and pitching coach Mark Wisener could send out a different pitcher in every inning of every game. They could even play an intrasquad game between the pitchers and position players just to break the monotony of practice. (Don’t think they haven’t thought about it.)
“We’re a small army,” senior right-hander Tiffany Harbin said.
And it’s behind that army the Gamecocks could march a long way once tournament time gets here.
The pitching staff is currently fifth in the Ohio Valley Conference in overall ERA (second in league play), third in runs allowed and second in strikeouts-to-walk ratio. They’ve fashioned 15 shutouts, nine in conference play.
What makes them so effective is all the pitchers bring something different to the table.
That not only has helped the Gamecocks keep opponents in check – they lead the OVC East going into this weekend’s games – players and coaches alike are convinced it has made their own hitters better. They currently lead the OVC in virtually every major hitting category.
“Our toughest question is who do we go with,” McGinnis said. “They all have different make-ups, different characteristics; our biggest decision is who do we start.”
Harbin commands the most attention. She is unquestionably the ace, and her legacy grows every time she enters the circle. She owns the school record for career wins (71) and strikeouts (843). OVC opponents are hitting only .167 against her this year.
Freshman Logan Green is the second starter. She can work in and out of the strike zone, and her best pitch is the change.
Saks product Taylor West throws three different speeds and works up and down the zone. Savanna Hennings, the other senior on the staff who worked her way back from an injury in the fall, and Casey Akenberger keep the ball down.
Brooke Carvey is the most versatile, but that’s left her in a tough spot. She’s so close to being the designated hitter and the No. 3 or 4 pitcher. Jordan Sims is still developing in the bullpen, and her best pitch is the change.
Other teams would love to have what the Gamecocks have cultivated. Within the OVC, UT Martin has used seven pitchers this season and Austin Peay six, but most of the rest of the league has no more than four.
Georgia State coach Roger Kincaid joked to McGinnis coming off the bus Wednesday, if he could “borrow” a few of her pitchers before sending his ace to go the distance in their mid-week non-conference game.
“When I came here … pitching practice was like half the team,” Green said. “I just never had that before. In college you never know what’s going to happen, so it’s a nice thing. I’d rather have too many than not enough.”
So would McGinnis. There were times – as recently as the last two years – when injuries reduced the pitching staff to a precious few. One year, the coaches started walking through the dugout, asking if any position player had pitched in high school.
McGinnis was determined not to go through that again.
“We said we’ve got to have some throwers, if we ever get in this situation,” she said.
And the pursuit began.
One might think so many pitchers and only one ball might create tension, but the pitchers know the score. They embrace the competition and share the confidence that’s built with it.
“We do push each other to be better,” Harbin said. “It makes me a better player, because you’re competing every day to earn your spot.”
Said West, “It’s great, because, no matter what happens, somebody back there is going to have your back.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @almusky_star.
ARMED AND DANGEROUS
Jacksonville State’s stable of pitchers
(With class, record and ERA)
Brooke Carvey, Fr. RHP, 2-0/1.27
Tiffany Harbin, Sr. RHP, 12-6/2.44
Logan Green, Fr. RHP, 8-2/2.62
Jordan Sims, Fr. RHP, 0-0/2.80
Taylor West, Fr. RHP, 3-2/3.40
Casey Akenberger, So. RHP, 4-2/6.22
Savanna Hennings, Sr. RHP, 0-0/14.00