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‘K’ is for Kirsten, now

Junior Kirsten Lightel set the ONU career strikeout record on Sunday, April 2, against John Carroll. (Northern Review photo/ Grant Pepper)

Just two Sundays ago, on a pleasant afternoon with temperatures in the mid-60s, Kirsten Lightel was on the brink of history.

She needed one more strikeout to become Ohio Northern’s career leader in Ks. The junior had already retired 10 batters that day, but number 11 was the big one. With one out in the top of the seventh inning, John Carroll’s Angie Zappitelli, batting .365, was the next potential victim of history.

Zappitelli fought valiantly, as one would expect. But Lightel eventually struck her out swinging, as one would also expect, and one of the most prestigious softball school pitching records switched hands.

It was an astonishing feat; Lightel broke the record in just 375 innings, while it took former record-holder Cortney Cash (‘10) 542 career innings to set the previous mark of 313.

However, nothing happened.

The game did not stop. The players did not tip their caps to Lightel as a standing ovation commenced. The PA announcer did not bellow Lightel’s accomplishment for all to hear. Lightel didn’t even smile.

But that’s probably how she wanted it.

After all, the Polar Bears were down 5-0, and they would eventually lose by that score. And despite Lightel's 11 strikeouts and ONU’s hitting struggles that day, the junior felt as if she wasn’t doing her part.

“When I go into a game, I’m not thinking about how many strikeouts I need or how many strikeouts I’m gonna get. My job is to go in and to help the team win,” Lightel said.

“After the John Carroll game, and we lost, people were coming up to me like, ‘Congratulations, you broke the record,’ and I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was thinking about what I could have done better to help us win the game, what I could’ve thrown better that game, or what pitches I could’ve done differently.”

Maybe that lack of complacency is how Lightel has stayed nearly unhittable in her two-plus years as a Polar Bear.

The junior owns a 1.58 career ERA, which is the lowest in school history. Her 1.09 ERA this season leads the rest of the OAC by nearly half a run. Lightel also boasts 44 career wins, which is tied for second in school history. Her 12 wins this season lead the rest of the OAC by three.

Oh, and the strikeouts. She has 96 this season, which leads the rest of the OAC by 13.

To put an exclamation point on things, Lightel has pitched 103 innings this spring, which is the most of any pitcher in the conference. These numbers mean more simply because they have passed the tests of time and repetition.

But for opponents, the scary part isn’t even her unparalleled dominance; she’s been doing this since her freshman year, when led the conference in ERA and strikeouts, earning OAC Pitcher of the Year honors.

It’s the fact that she’s actually getting better.

Lightel’s ERA this season is nearly a whole run less than it was last year, when it was 1.95. She is on pace to easily surpass last year’s win total of 15, and her previous single-season high of 122 strikeouts, which she recorded last season, will likely be eclipsed comfortably this spring as well.

Lightel believes that her continuous improvement -- catalyzed by her fear of complacency -- could also be aided by her family’s competitiveness. She grew up in a family of pitchers, as her grandfather was her pitching coach starting at the age of eight. Two of her three aunts pitched in high school, with one of them pitching collegiately for Akron University. Lightel’s older sister, who was an infielder at Baldwin Wallace, pitched in high school as well.

As the youngest hurler in the family, Lightel says that she has always wanted to make a name for herself.

“It was always a competition in our family, and it was one of my big motivations -- to be better than my aunts and my sister,” Lightel said. “And I think that having that drive to be better than the people before you has always been what drives me.”

With the help of her grandfather and a multitude of coaches along the way, Lightel has developed a deadly five-pitch arsenal, which includes three “strikeout pitches,” according to first-year head coach Jackie Mangola.

Each pitch travels at a different speed and is designed to serve a unique purpose, which is why they are so effective. To utilize this wide variance of pitch types, Lightel focuses on the mental side of the game.

She wants to make the batter think.

“All my pitches are completely different speeds, and that throws batters off. It puts them on their toes because they don’t know what’s going to come next. I can look at a batter, look at their swing, and know what they can’t hit and what they can hit well,” Lightel said.

“I’ve never been focused on throwing the ball hard. My focus when I’m pitching is moving the ball and changing speeds, and I think that’s what throws batters off a whole lot. A huge thing in hitting is timing, and if you don’t have the timing down and you don’t hit the ball solid then it’s not going to go where you want it to go.”

Lightel likes to set the batter up with one pitch, and then fool them with the next. When it’s her versus the batter, she is making the first move every time.

“I like to use my pitches to set them up for other pitches. So if I go outside and slow, I’m going to come [inside] and hard on the next one,” Lightel said. “One of my best pitches is my riseball. So, setting them up with an away, outside curveball, something slower to throw them off -- it doesn’t even half to be a strike, just getting in their head like, ‘What is she going to throw next?’ And then coming in hard with a riseball on the inside… I think that’s definitely what helps me.”

 

The pitches

Ordered from fastest to slowest, here is Lightel’s arsenal:

Fastball

This is Lightel’s fastest pitch, which she believes registers “in the high 50s or low 60s” in terms of miles per hour. When she is throws this pitch off the plate (away from the batter), Mangola believes that this is one of Lightel’s most effective “strikeout pitches.”

“Sometimes when batters get two strikes on them, they get a little concerned and feel like they need to protect that outside corner,” Mangola said. “And Kir is really good at [throwing] that a ball to a ball-and-a-half off the plate, and will catch them swinging on that.”

The grip:

 

Riseball

According to Mangola, this is another one of her “strikeout” pitches. This pitch elevates as it reaches the plate, moving quickly in an attempt to jam the batter. “You want to get completely under the ball and snap upwards, with the ball spinning backwards and up,” Lightel said of the pitch. “My riseball has a tendency to break in on some batters, there’s a little bit of a ‘screw’ to it sometimes.”

Northern’s second starting pitcher, sophomore Kaitlin Surdej, said last month on WONB’s The Pep Talk that the riseball is one of Lightel’s most deadly pitches.

“The best thing that she has is her riseball, which is a great pitch,” Surdej said. “It’ll fool almost any batter. It looks like it’s coming right at you and then at the last second it’ll jump up.”

The grip:

 

Curveball

This pitch breaks across the strike zone, fooling batters with lateral movement. While Mangola does not consider this a “strikeout” pitch, its movement makes it deceptive when following a faster, more steady pitch.

The grip:

 

Dropball

In the exact opposite fashion of the riseball, this pitch breaks downward once it nears the plate. While Lightel’s fingers are on the left side of the seams for the riseball, they are on the right side for the dropball.

“Snap the ball over, down and hard into the ground, using the seams to push,” Lightel said. “That’s how I get my spin on the ball.” The ball moves downward on forespin, usually breaking down and out against right-handed batters.

The grip:

 

Changeup

This is Lightel’s slowest pitch, but one that Mangola also considers a “strikeout” pitch. The ball hovers temptingly over the plate, seeming to hang in midair while the batter must wait on the ball long enough to make contact. Lightel uses this effectively as an offspeed pitch, often giving the batter something fast before hitting them with this turtle-paced changeup.

The grip:

***

With five unique pitches in her arsenal and the knowledge of how to use them, Lightel has dominated the OAC for the past two-plus years. She is on pace to become the most decorated pitcher in ONU softball history the numbers prove it. But the most important statistic this season, according to Lightel, lies in the win column.

The Polar Bears are 20-8, 6-4 in the OAC, and need just five wins in their last 10 regular season games to become the winningest Northern team since 2012, when they made it to the College World Series.

“I don’t go out there thinking about my stats or thinking about what I’m doing personally, as a pitcher. It’s a team sport,” Lightel said. “Like, if we went the whole season and lost every single game, it honestly wouldn’t matter to me if I was a number one pitcher. I mean, that would be really cool, but if we’re not winning as a team, then there’s just something different about that than if you’re getting the wins.”

Lightel is concentrating on the scoreboard, not the statbook. And although she appreciates the importance of breaking the career strikeout record two Sundays ago -- she said it was “very exciting” -- she knows that there is still much room for improvement.

Just a few days after breaking the record, Lightel’s focused expression mirrored the one she had after striking out Zappitelli. As soon as she sat Zappitelli down swinging, Lightel was already focused on the next batter, the next pitch.

As the pitcher who has thrown 399 innings in just two and a half seasons would know, there is no time to rest.

“I’ve always wanted to be better,” Lightel said with a focused intensity. “I’m not going to sit on this.”