Stepping into the batter’s box as Prairie Ridge pitcher Kirsten Stevens stands 43 feet away in the circle equated to a nightmare scenario for any hitter.
Loaded with an arsenal that includes a fastball that reaches 65 mph, a rise ball that tempts hitters to swing at a pitch often leaving the strike zone and a nearly unhittable changeup, Stevens became a one-woman wrecking crew for the Wolves. And when she worked an opposing hitter to a two-strike count, well, Stevens was lights out.
Stevens, a left-handed, four-year varsity player, averaged 11.65 strikeouts a game this season and finished with an area-best 283 strikeouts en route to a 21-4 record. With Stevens leading the way, Prairie Ridge won its first Fox Valley Conference Valley Division title, and its 26 wins were the most since 2010.
“I’ve always tried to get ahead of the batters and strike them out,” Stevens said. “But during the game, I don’t really think about strikeouts. I just take one batter at a time and see what happens.”
During the offseason, Stevens decided she didn’t want to be known for being only a great pitcher. Her work on tees and improving her swing resulted in a breakout year offensively. Stevens hit .378 with five home runs and 16 RBIs while slugging .676.
“We all knew she was a phenomenal pitcher, but when you see her get ready to swing, bang, the ball just explodes off her bat,” Wolves coach Mike Buck said. “She worked very hard on her hitting. She took that seriously.”
For her accomplishments in an outstanding season to cap a remarkable career, Stevens is the Northwest Herald softball Player of the Year as chosen by the sports staff with input from local coaches. Cary-Grove’s Sarah Leudo, Crystal Lake Central’s Megan Mahaffy and Jacobs’ Alyssa Lach also were considered for the honor.
“Different speeds and movements have really helped,” Stevens said. “Each year I’ve gotten stronger with each pitch, my movement has especially improved.”
Stevens leaves the Wolves as the most decorated pitcher in school history. She ended her career with 957 strikeouts and a 71-20 record – the most strikeouts and wins all-time at Prairie Ridge – tallying at least 20 wins in each of the past three seasons. Although her time on the field with the Wolves has ended, Stevens’ softball career will continue at Division I Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
“It takes a lot of work to perfect, but a lot of it is just natural ability,” Buck said of Stevens. “When you put hard work and natural ability together, that’s what you get.”
Buck touted Stevens’ changeup, which “absolutely fools hitters.” Stevens dedicated hours upon hours to improve her pitches, specifically her changeup in trying to mask the pitch to keep hitters guessing. It paid off. She posted a 0.99 ERA this season, and when the FVC Valley title was on the line against rival Cary-Grove in May, Stevens tossed a shutout.
“I think I’ve matured as a person besides a softball player,” Stevens said. “I’ve made great friends at this school on and off the field. I think it was a great experience playing softball here. I know I’m going to stay in contact with a lot of the girls.”
In an era when offenses have become more explosive, thanks to hitter-friendly composite bats and a pitching circle that was moved back 3 feet in 2009, Stevens’ numbers are eye-popping.
“Can you imagine if she were 3 feet closer to batters? I wouldn’t want to get in there,” Buck said.
Although it hasn’t fully sunk in that she will never again step onto the softball field at Prairie Ridge to play, Stevens has no regrets.
“I’m really happy with what I accomplished,” Stevens said of her Wolves career. “[At Mercer], I’m going to do my best. It’s definitely going to be a different ballgame next year, but I’m always up for a challenge.”