UF's Nelson Dominating One Pitch At A Time
Strike three! It was over. When University of Florida junior All-American Stacey Nelson provided the exclamation point last weekend, when the Gators were assured of their first trip to softball's College World Series, she reacted like a schoolgirl. Instead of sprinting off the mound, Nelson skipped happily. Then she jumped into the arms of her catcher, Kristina Hilberth. "My best focus comes when I'm not very focused," Nelson said. "I like to keep things light. You've got to enjoy these moments." What's not to like? Nelson has evolved into one of the sport's most dominant pitchers. The No. 1-seeded Gators (67-3) can set the Division I record for single-season victories by defeating Louisiana-Lafayette (51-13) in today's CWS opener at Oklahoma City. By next week, if UF weathers the eight-team, double-elimination event, Nelson might have another moment of impromptu celebration.The national championship. "So many pitchers at Stacey's level are very intense and very serious," said Diane Lewis, who has given pitching instruction to Nelson for 12 years at her facility in Long Beach, Calif. "My gosh, every time I see Stacey, she's walking in like a 10-year-old girl. And I taught her at 10. She hasn't changed. She's still a joy." And still a compelling force. University of California batter Katie Vickers is still trying to locate Nelson's screwball - the bottom dropped out of the 1-2 offering, causing Vickers to wave and miss - that ended UF's 3-2, eight-inning victory against the Golden Bears in Saturday's NCAA Super Regionals. It was Nelson's 337th strikeout this season in 3162/3 innings, and her record improved to 45-3 with a 0.73 ERA. Nelson has faced 1,085 batters and has allowed one home run. "You don't want to think much about these numbers," said Nelson, a contender for National Player of the Year. "I mean, we're 67-3. You can't predict something like that. You just concentrate on the next pitch. That's the way I've always tried to do it, since the beginning." When Nelson went into her windup, ready to finish off Cal, her father, Craig, was in the stands, briefly flashing back to the moments when it all started. It was an 8-year-old recreational team - the Dolphins - near their home in Los Alamitos, Calif. Nobody knew much about the fast-pitch sport. The girls twirled a soft windmill motion, the balls puttering in at 30 mph. Nelson's father, one of the coaches, said somebody would need to learn pitching - real pitching. Somebody. Anybody? Nelson raised her hand. She was recommended to Lewis, a former pitcher for Long Beach State when it made the 1986 CWS. Nelson had a new favorite activity. And Nelson's father had a new lifestyle. Night after night, he sat on a bucket, catching his daughter's pitches during lessons. Some balls glanced off his shins or jammed his toes. Others flew over his head. "What am I doing here?" he quietly wondered. Sometimes, Stacey Nelson got frustrated. "You can't compress the time," her father said. "You keep working. Those talks on the drive home, they were some of our best moments. When it wasn't going well, I'd just say, 'Stacey, this doesn't happen in a day. Your day will come.'" Nelson's day has arrived. She's steady, almost unemotional. Her arm strength isn't overwhelming, but her form, particularly her leg and hip power, provides the foundation. She's disciplined enough to keep painting the plate's corners, even in the most precarious situations. She says things such as, "It's an honor to pitch for my offense," and means it. By all accounts, she's a terrific teammate, never talking about herself, relating well to everyone. One person, particularly. "My father has been there for me through it all," she said. "My father is one of the biggest reasons why I still play softball. "I joke with him that when I'm done playing, what is he going to do?" Nelson's father, who owns a business that manufactures parts for the oil industry, wonders the same thing. That's why this week is so meaningful. "I'm like Stacey now - I'm not thinking beyond the next pitch," he said. "You want to appreciate this moment." After college, Nelson said she'll probably give up softball. For one thing, what's left? Lewis is particularly sad about softball being dropped from the Olympics, because she had visions of Nelson wearing a gold medal. "But Stacey will still be the best at whatever she does," Lewis said. Nelson, a philosophy major with a 3.61 GPA, was named a first-team academic All-American on Wednesday. She is interested in law school, but not in becoming a lawyer. Since childhood, she talked about joining the Peace Corps and has a particular interest in visiting Africa. She expects to teach pitching skills to children. She'd like to join a low-key slow-pitch league, just so she can hit - finally. It's difficult to predict Nelson's instincts. Some people are still surprised she's playing softball nearly 3,000 miles away in Gainesville. "I'm so glad I'm at Florida," Nelson said. "When it's August, I definitely miss the California breeze. But I look around and there are so many trees! So much undeveloped land! There isn't a McDonald's on every corner! Wow! Cool! "Being far away from home has been good for me. I've gotten a lot of new experiences." Including a trip to Oklahoma City. Is this fun or what? If Nelson had to skip all the way there, she wouldn't mind.
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353 or [email protected]