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Byers powers a potent pitching staff at Mt. Hood

THE OUTLOOK: DAVID BALL - Mt. Hood CC ace Kayla Byers trots back to the dugout after striking out a batter to end an inning during a 5-2 win over Clackamas last week. It’s hard to hit what you don’t see.

That’s the philosophy for Mt. Hood Community College softball coach Meadow McWhorter, who is in her 13th season with the Saints’ program that routinely is among the Northwest leaders across the pitching categories. Mt. Hood CC is surrendering only 3.2 runs per game this spring — tops among Northwest programs.

When McWhorter looks through her scorebook, pitch count is the number that stands out most. Two pitches that result in a ground out is preferred to a strikeout that sees the hitter work her way to a full count.

It’s like a magician. If you only see a trick a time or two, you are left wondering what just happened. If you see the same elusion 10 times, you may pick up on how it is pulled off.

“By a hitter’s third at-bat, there’s a huge difference between her already seeing 20 pitches or seeing just nine or 10,” McWhorter said. “We don’t want to let hitters get comfortable in the box. We want to work ahead and not allow the offense to see many pitches.”

This year sophomore Kayla Byers is the ace of a four-person rotation, leading the Northwest Association of Community Colleges with a 1.77 ERA over 21 appearances. She has 133 strikeouts to only 16 walks, showcasing an accuracy that McWhorter values above all else.

“We aren’t always looking to strike people out,” McWhorter said. “Instead, we want hitters going after the pitch we want them to hit. That can be tough when you are facing a disciplined hitter.”

That often means hitting the edges of the strike zone, prompting hitters to only connect with a piece of the ball. It is also a reason that she values a deep pitching staff to be able to throw a different look at hitters. Teammates Sammie Byron and Kendal Cox have each posted 50-plus innings in the circle midway through the 2016 season.

McWhorter relies heavily on her catchers to call a smart game. A former pitcher herself, at Mt. Hood CC and at Jacksonville State, McWhorter holds a high regard for that pitcher-catcher relationship.

“We would just get into a rhythm, and I loved that dynamic. It’s important to build that trust with your catcher,” she said. “We have a game plan for each hitter in the lineup. As coaches, we’ll talk about what we would call in an at-bat, and it’s fun to see that nine times out of 10 our catcher is calling what we’d like.”

The Saints spend time on developing pin-point accuracy over the course of the year — a favorite drill being one that simulates game-day situations on the practice field.

The four pitchers head to the circle, while the rest of the team lines up on the edge of the infield. Each thrower gets 10 pitches. Hit the assigned spot and you’ll receive cheers and handclaps. Miss the target zone and you watch your teammates run — a sprint to the outfield wall and back.

“Pitchers are going to face pressure in almost every inning, so we’re creating a situation where they feel the whole team on their shoulders,” McWhorter said. “If you miss your spot in a close game that could be the difference in giving up the winning run. Their teammates are cheering for them the whole time — it’s a drill that brings a lot of noise.”

Mt. Hood is off to a 29-8 (.784) start this season — the second-best record among Northwest junior colleges.

McWhorter holds a 412-139 (.748) career record at Mt. Hood CC, leading the Saints to four Northwest titles and a pair of runner-up finishes.