A good pitcher can take a team a long way in high school softball.
Unlike in baseball, where innings must be limited to save wear and tear on young arms, a softball pitcher can take the ball every day out, and throw every inning of every game without need for a relief specialist. So a solid pitcher is, more often than not, the first indicator of a winning team.
Then there’s the pitcher that’s just a cut above; the kind of windmiller that makes even the best hitters look silly as they put up numbers like they were playing a video game set to “easy.” That pitcher who makes you think seven innings of work is spelled with nothing but Ks.
The Ches-Mont has been fortunate to watch a run of top shelf, elite pitchers going back a decade. Pitchers who earned unanimous respect from opponents as the top hurlers they’ve seen.
Early in the millennium, Downingtown West dominated behind the arms of Chelsea Kendall, who took the Whippets to the state final four twice, and Caroline Raymond, who led deep postseason runs through high school before heading off to throw for the University of Massachusetts.
Down the street at Bishop Shanahan, Amanda Glaser carried the Eagles to a slew of Southern Chester County League titles behind heat, heat and more heat. Then Kate Poppe stepped in and dominated the Ches-Mont like no one else — both with her arm and her bat — and Shanahan found itself playing in the state finals.
After Poppe, now coaching at Rider University, left for a stellar career at Villanova, a girl named Maggie Balint took the circle for Avon Grove. All Balint did was earn Gatorade Player of the Years honors for Pennsylvania three straight years, while guiding the Red Devils to Ches-Mont titles, a District 1 championship game, and a state record for strikeouts. Balint is now tearing it up in the Pac-12 as a true freshman, boasting an 11-0 record with 86 Ks in 56 innings of work.
“The common bond among all those girls was their work ethic,” said Jeff Celucci, who coached Raymond and Kendall, and now has another top notch girl at Great Valley in Morgan Orlowski. “None of them was ever satisfied and worked hard day in and day out, and all year long to be as good as they could be.”
Ron Savastio is pretty sure he’s the luckiest guy in the world. After spending a lifetime coaching baseball, the octogenarian Savastio took over as softball coach at Shanahan just in time for Poppe, and now is pretty sure the next great Ches-Mont hurler will once again be wearing Eagles’ green.
“Devon Miller is something special,” said Sevastio. “I never thought I’d see another Poppe — and there really never will be anyone like Kate — but for pure talent, Miller is special, and will be right up there in the discussion with Kate and Maggie when all is said and done.”
There were flashes of brilliance last year as an inexperienced freshman, posting an ERA of 3.5 while striking out 215 hitters. But Miller really turned it on in the post season, leading a sub .500 team to the District 1, Class 2A title game, and winning a game in the state tourney.
“At the start of last season, I didn’t really know anything about Kate,” said Miller. “But it didn’t take too long hearing about her to realize that I wanted to be that person for Bishop Shanahan, the one they look to and takes them to, hopefully, a state title. Then getting to know her at the end of last season made me sure of it.”
First and foremost, Miller throws gas, with velocity, according to Savastio, that tops Poppe’s best marks in college. Throw in a wicked screwball, and Miller is not a pitcher hitters will look forward to facing.
“She came back this year and I told her that what she needed to start working on a good changeup if she wanted to be really successful,” said Savastio. “So she threw a few changeups for me. She’d been working hard on her changeup, and it is 100 percent better than a year ago. Devastating.”
Like most freshmen, Miller survived on raw talent, so there were a few missteps and ugly outings. But that just made Miller want to work even harder, and she didn’t have to look far for a role model. Her pitching coach on her travel team, Chaos, is none other than Jen Balint, also known as Maggie’s Mom.
“I got to know Maggie when I first came to Chaos as an eighth-grader,” said Miller. “I’ve always looked up to her. I saw how hard she works, and I knew exactly what I had to do. I can’t tell you how much Maggie and her mom have meant to me.”
Balint herself feels her strikeout record is in danger if Miller continues to improve at the rate she has.
“Devon has a good drop curve and rise that will result in strikeouts and i think she has a good chance hitting 1,000 Ks and if Shanahan goes into playoff deep she will hit 1,000 no problem,” said the younger Balint. “Devon is a great team player and she has a bright future ahead. I hope she does break my record and I wish her nothing but the best this up-coming season.”
Taking Shanahan deep is one of Miller’s primary goals.
“I’m really proud of what we did as a team last year,” said Miller. “But we have almost everyone back, and we are all working as hard as we can. This year is a great opportunity to make a deep run, and I’m really looking forward to it. I think last year we were all nervous — I know I was. This year I think we all know what we can do.”
Miller is certainly showing that confidence even before her first regular season outing.
“We were working on a situational play in practice, with runners on first and third, just a simple, this is what we need to be thinking, and what we need to do,” said Savastio. “We had barely started working on it when Devon asked why we were bothering. She joked there would never be a runner on third.”