Two pitchers better than one for Pioneers

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 24, 2013 

Abstract methods consume a Nooksack Valley softball practice.

The unorthodox approach head coach Tom Harmon employs spans from quirky to unique and everything in between, whether it's garnishing chainlink fences with a 10-inch long piece of white rope or the miniature toilet that adorns the back of the dugout.

All of which confirms a reality that both Harmon and his long-time pitching coach of 13 years, Pete Robbins, play by their own rules.

"Everything we do is competitive," Robbins said mid-practice.

And he means everything.

Every drill, every movement has a purpose, Harmon said, nothing is wasted.

The unique tactics and indistinguishable approach have proven, though unusual, to be effective asevidenced by 13 appearances in the Class 1A State Tournament over the past 14 years, with this year being no different. The Pioneers will face Elma in the first round on Friday, May 24, in Richland.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Harmon and Robbins' unique take on softball yields an approach very few teams encounter: a two-pitcher rotation during games.

Robbins, who oversees everything concerning the pitching staff, has created a system between sophomore Alexis Pike and junior Kayla Struiksma. The rotation consists of both pitchers only pitching between two and three innings at a time, and then being relieved by the other, who does the same.

Because of the rules governing high school softball, players can be subbed in and out twice, meaning both Pike and Struiksma can relieve one another and then re-enter.

"I have time to think and refresh," Pike said of the time in between stints in the circle. "I just relax and think about things I need to do."

The inspiration behind having a two-pitcher rotation came some 10 years ago in a game against South Whidbey.

"South Whidbey had a team that year that was an unbelievable hitting team that absolutely ripped the league apart," Harmon said. "We were playing them, and they just about the third time through uncorked on our pitching.

"We were looking at that, and we brought another kid in, and we realized that she kind of kept them off balance. So the next few times we played them we threw three pitchers. ... They struggled. They struggled every time we faced them, because they never got that chance to get comfortable."

Hitters throughout the course of a game look to gain information on the pitchers, but Pioneers' method doesn't allow that to happen, Harmon said, inevitably making hitters constantly uncomfortable.

And while Harmon has been at the helm of Nooksack Valley softball for 27 years, he doesn't take any of the credit for the success of his pitching staff. That's all Robbins, who creates the game plan, manages the rotation and calls the games from the dugout.

"It frees Tom up to do his job," Robbins said.

Pike and Struiksma both offer something uniquely distinct about the way they throw, making the rotation incredibly hard to get used to, Robbins said.

"Kayla puts a lot of thought into what she is doing," Robbins said. "She really thinks, almost too much."

The stone-faced, unwavering Struiksma, as she was described by Robbins, is entering her third go-around at state, while Pike is entering her second. And for everything Struiksma is - unflappable and stern - the light and bubbly personality of Pike makes the two quite a pairing.

"Lexi is like the golden retriever," Robbins said while watching Pike pitch during an inter-squad scrimmage.

Pike's demeanor in the circle is only offset by the moments in which she takes to rub the bright yellow softball in the dirt, something she has been doing since she was 11 years old.

"I just stop and think," Pike said of the habit. "When I release the ball, I can have more grip."

A pitching coach like Robbins is unquestionably important, but he's not the one of the field. The one handling the revolving door in the circle has been a constant, senior catcher Lauren Dykstra. Dykstra is one of four seniors on the team, and her presence and leadership on the field is very much an extension of Robbins, he said.

So much so that he rarely, if ever, goes out to the mound. A simple pat on the chest in Dykstra's direction tells her he wants her to go have a heart-to-heart with the pitcher.

"If I were to go out there often, it would frustrate them," Robbins said.

Dykstra, on the other hand, rarely uses the pitcher-catcher meetings to address issues mechanically or to discuss what approach should be taken with a certain hitter.

Rather, it's a light-hearted moment to get the pitcher to think about something other than the next batter.

"Pete tells me to call a timeout, so I say, 'What's for dinner tonight?'" Dykstra said. "When Lexi is struggling mid-laugh and throws a perfect curveball, I'm like, 'What was that?'"

A response Elma is sure to have when going up against the rotation of Pike and Struiksma.

Reach Alex Bigelow at alex.bigelow@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2271.

TODAY'S STATE SOFTBALL GAMES

CLASS 2A

? Lynden vs. Sumner, 10 a.m.

Site: Carlon Park, Selah

CLASS 1A

? Mount Baker vs. Woodland, noon

? Elma vs. Nooksack Valley, noon

Site: Columbia Playfield, Richland

NOTE: Quarterfinals and first two rounds of consolation bracket will follow.

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