Ravens have a rare luxury

large_WEB-Lucascolumn-p_042815-003

By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

As her 900 wins in 23 years as head coach at Oklahoma State and her 2008 induction into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame suggest, Sandy Fischer has been around softball for quite some time.

So believe Fischer, now in her third season as head coach at Ridgeview High, when she says that what the Ravens boast is a luxury, one that, as she puts it, 99 percent of high school softball programs cannot relate with.

Forgive Fischer if she struggles to sympathize with the other 99 percent, however, considering the potent battery at her disposal. She has not just one ace up her sleeve — junior Rachel Collins, a first-team all-Intermountain Conference pitcher last season — but two, including senior Sara McKinney, a second-team all-league pitcher in 2014. And behind the plate for Ridgeview is Paige Davis, a senior all-IMC catcher who has signed to play at NCAA Division II Western Oregon next season.

If that were not enough, these three players read hitters like the charts they study in between games and innings. They discover subtleties most prep pitchers are blind to. To boot, Collins has been pitching to Davis since she was 11 years old; McKinney to Davis since she was 8.

“I was used to depth at the pitching position in colleges because most colleges carry three or four (pitchers) and they recruit them from everywhere,” says Fischer. “But to have that depth in high school is just amazing.”

Here is the heart of the Ravens — a battery so invaluable, so rare and so autonomous.

Honed during last season’s run to the Class 4A state semifinals, this Ridgeview trio has developed into a well-oiled, virtually glitch-free machine. Davis knows her pitchers better than anyone on the field, and there is no player Collins or McKinney would rather see crouching behind home plate some 40 feet away. The synergy between them is not just a byproduct of familiarity or athletic prowess. There is much more to it than that.

“It’s getting the pitchers to buy into the fact that they have to have a marriage of the minds, so to speak, between the pitcher and the catcher,” Fischer explains. “Both have to be thinking and not just blindly throwing, or me giving a signal and the catcher just relays it to the pitcher. They’re not thinking then. I’m old-fashioned. I’ve been around it a long time. For them to enjoy the game and to excel, I think they need to mentally participate. That creates really good instincts.”

Their instincts have not let the Ravens down yet.

Ridgeview, playing in the 5A IMC for the first time, sits atop the league standings with an unblemished 8-0 record. The Ravens are 14-1 overall and have been No. 1 in 5A for much of the season. McKinney and Collins have combined for just two shutouts, but they (and sophomore Brook Herrington, yet another pitching talent) have limited opponents to three runs or fewer 12 times this season — all in the last 13 games. Ridgeview has outscored opponents 140-36 through 15 games, allowing the fewest runs in 5A on its way to the best record in the classification.

The Ravens clearly have the offensive arsenal to keep pace with any opponent. But at the front line of attack are McKinney and Collins with batterymate Davis behind the plate. Although she has pitched just 20 innings through the first 15 games, McKinney has posted a 4-0 record and struck out 23 batters while logging a 0.7 ERA. As her senior teammate begins to gear up for the home stretch, Collins has found her own groove, logging an 8-1 record thus far with 51 strikeouts.

“We never run out. We really never get tired,” McKinney says. “If somebody’s having an off day, you can throw one of us back into it and there we go again.”

It is not just that McKinney and Collins possess the talent to stymie offenses. It is not just that Davis has been on the receiving end of their pitches since well before high school. Each element of this dominant Ridgeview battery is, as Fischer describes, a student of the game.

They study hitting and pitch charts of opponents. What player hit what pitch on what count? Where in the strike zone did the pitch come? Where do batters stand in the box? What do their warm-up swings look like? Collins, McKinney and Davis discuss all these aspects the day before and the day of each game. Between innings, after they jog off the field and into the dugout, pitcher and catcher immediately refer to these charts. They review the upcoming hitters, and they devise game plans.

“It’s just another bullet in the gun,” Fischer says. “Every pitch you throw is just another bullet in the gun. The more we know, the more success we should have.”

Collins is sure she knows well the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of each Central Oregon hitter, as if the junior divines each of their at-bats and what sequence of pitches to fire. That is the upper hand the Ridgeview trio holds over opponents. There is nothing random about their pitch-calling. Every delivery has a purpose and is based on history, observation, communication and trust.

“Warm-ups is a big thing,” Davis says. “I (catch) bullpen for them when we warm up (before each game). I ask them, ‘What do you think is on today?’ I use that in a game and slowly build it up. If they’re struggling, I can see it on their faces, and I just call timeout and go talk to them.

“It’s a lot of comfort,” she adds. “I’ve caught every game the past two years. It’s a lot of comfort.”

Of course, confidence in the defense lined up behind each pitcher has been just as invaluable to Collins, McKinney and Davis as they have been to the Ravens. That comfort Davis describes, the two aces can relate with their defense. There is no fear for Collins or McKinney to throw a mistake pitch because they both know there are seven players out in the field backing them up.

This is the Ridgeview battery — the aces Collins and McKinney firing to the stalwart Davis. They are the front line for the Ravens, leading the charge for one of the top softball teams in the state.

“I think we all kind of rely on each other, and that’s really important,” Collins says. “It’s not an individual thing. … It’s a team thing.”

%d bloggers like this: