Dixie State softball soaring ever higher with two aces and a deuce

It’s not just any sport, it’s not just throwing a ball, hitting and running. I live with the cheering of my players while I’m up to bat. I live with the red stitches of the softball rubbing against my fingers when I snap my wrist and let it fly. I live with mistakes every day in it, and I live learning them. I live on the pitcher’s mound, where I need complete confidence in myself. I live with snapping my wrist to the catcher and getting the batter out, a perfect strike. I live, not only for my teammates, but for myself. I live for fastpitch softball.

– Anonymous

ST. GEORGE – College softball excitement is at a fever pitch this year, with Dixie State once again hosting the NCAA Division II Western Regionals, thanks to the Red Storm’s high ranking.

Dixie State University's softball team is having another monstrous year, file photo from DSU vs. Notre Dame de Namur University, Softball, St. George, Utah, Apr. 11, 2015 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News
Dixie State University’s softball team is having another monstrous year, file photo from DSU vs. Notre Dame de Namur University, Softball, St. George, Utah, Apr. 11, 2015 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

Currently sitting at No. 4 in the nation, the Red Storm will begin NCAA action on Thursday, hosting other West Region teams. Thursday afternoon, the opening game will feature Chico State against California Baptist at 1 p.m. The second game, at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, will feature the Red Storm against the Saint Martins Saints, from Lacey, Wash.

The double-elimination sub-regional continues through Saturday.

The senior-laden Red Storm squad is in a familiar position — the team everyone else wants to beat. That is due in large part to their two pitching aces, Michelle Duncan and Aryn Feickert. But the person who calls the pitches and controls the game is the person squatting behind the plate, Marla Reiter.

“No one prepares for each game more than Marla,” Dixie State head coach Randy Simkins said. “We go over each batter, what their tendencies are and where they are weak. We will still call pitches from the dugout, but Marla usually has the pitch called, especially with Duncan, because they have been together for so long.”

Duncan and Reiter came in together four years ago. Feickert is comparatively a newcomer, in her second year in a DSU uniform after transferring from Oregon State.

“We are very lucky to not only have two great pitchers, but to have two great pitchers with such contrasting styles,” Simkins said. “Duncan is a drop-ball pitcher, while Feickert is a rise-ball pitcher. It is very difficult for opposing teams to prepare facing both styles in one afternoon.”

THE DROP-BALL PITCH – The pitch should appear to be coming straight, but dip down just as it reaches the batter. This forces the batter to start thinking much more strategically than when she faces a straight pitcher. Combining with fastballs and changeups, the drop ball will play mind games with the batter, leading to strikes and forcing mistakes as she anticipates the ball’s movement. A good drop-ball pitcher will force batters to hit ground balls without being able to place them.

– “General Pitch Philosophy, Coaching the Softball Pitcher”

Michelle Duncan, 24-0, 1.33 ERA

21_Duncan
Michelle Duncan

Michelle Duncan had a successful prep career in Arizona, but did not attract any offers from any big schools.

“She had great stuff as a pitcher,” said Mike Grimaldi, Michelle Duncan’s club coach. “She is the best I have seen at placement and is very difficult to hit. But because of her small size, she was not considered a power pitcher and I think that kept the Division I schools at a distance.”

Michelle Duncan became a fixture at the practice field. “From a very early age, you would see her practicing her pitching with her father, Mike,” Grimaldi said. “Practice makes perfect, and if you know Michelle, then you know she is a perfectionist. Nobody works harder than she does.”

Dixie State was one of the handful of schools on Michelle Duncan’s list.

“We had actually targeted Dixie State because of its dental hygienist program,” Mike Duncan said. “We sent them a tape, but we never heard back. We were set on Michelle going to Phoenix Community College. Phoenix had just won the Junior College National Championship.”

Dixie State pitcher Michelle Duncan, Dixie State University vs. Notre Dame de Namur University, Softball, St. George, Utah, Apr. 11, 2015 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News
Dixie State pitcher Michelle Duncan, Dixie State University vs. Notre Dame de Namur University, Softball, St. George, Utah, Apr. 11, 2015 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, ASPpix.com, St. George News

College recruiting is not just trying to get the best players. Usually coaches will try to address team needs for the upcoming year.

“We were already set at pitcher for the next season,” Simkins said. “We were scouting another player, Courtney Sherwin. Mike Grimaldi asked us to just watch Michelle throw. We knew after just a few pitches we needed to get her. We offered her a scholarship that night.”

After a visit to Dixie State the next weekend, Michelle Duncan accepted the offer.

“At the time I came, I was attracted to the dental hygienist program,” Michelle Duncan said. “But the main reason I chose DSU was how immediately comfortable the girls and the coaching staff made me feel when I visited. It helped that Courtney (Sherwin) had also committed to Dixie State.”

The last three years, Michelle Duncan has compiled a record of 64-6. She was named this year’s PacWest Pitcher of the Year.

“Duncan’s intensity on the mound is apparent,” said Reiter. “She has that snarl on her face. She has tremendous focus and is a terror for opposing batters.”

THE RISE-BALL PITCH: The true rise ball runs a straight line, then lifts up due to the spin of the ball. The pitch does not run a straight line from low to high. The rise ball appears to be coming straight, lulling the batter into a false sense of security and encouraging a swing, but when the batter swings, the ball is no longer where she expected it to be. It is the most difficult pitch to master and is generally the ‘out pitch’ in the pitcher’s arsenal. A good rise ball pitcher will force batters to hit pop-ups.

– “General Pitch Philosophy, Coaching the Softball Pitcher”

Aryn Feickert, 19-5, 2.25 ERA

7_Feickert
Aryn Feickert

Aryn Feickert’s path to Dixie State was much different. Unlike Michelle Duncan, Aryn Feickert received many offers from Division I schools.

“Her club team was not very good,” said father and coach, Mark Feickert. “But she played great and pitched particularly well against other Division I prospects that were being scouted. She settled on Oregon State.”

Aryn Feickert had a productive freshman year with the Beavers, getting a win against UCLA and placing herself solidly in the pitching rotation. However, in regionals of that year she took a line drive to the head and suffered a concussion. The injury had lasting effects that wore on for 10 weeks. When she returned to school, she no longer had any physical symptoms, but had yet to overcome the psychological effects from the trauma.

“She was still hesitant with her pitching,” Mark Feickert said. “There had also been a coaching change at Oregon State. The new coaches were not interested in redeveloping her. She only pitched a single inning that year.”

Feickert was granted a medical redshirt and at the end of the season had decided not to return.

Aryn Feickert in her pre-Dixie State days. | Photo courtesy Aryn Feickert
Aryn Feickert in her pre-Dixie State days. | Photo courtesy Aryn Feickert

“The coaches that had recruited me were gone,” Aryn Feickert said. “I did not have the same enthusiasm with the new staff. And I think the feeling was mutual. I decided to look elsewhere.”

Aryn Feickert had a good friend named Rochelle Jenkins that played for the Red Storm at that time.

“Rochelle approached the coaching staff and asked if we would be interested in recruiting Aryn,” Simkins said. “It was clear that she was a talent that we should look at. I know we are a Division II school, but our philosophy is that we recruit Division I talent. We are aggressive in our approach, but it has worked for us. I believe our roster is full of Division I talent.”

Aryn Feickert again received offers from several schools when she was granted her release from Oregon State. When she made a visit to a school in Southern California, she decided to swing over to St. George and visit the DSU campus.

“We drove to Utah that night,” Aryn Feickert said. “I met with the coaching staff and the team. I knew right away. I told my dad that I did not want to visit the remaining schools. I felt really comfortable with the coaches and the team.”

She verbally committed that night.

In her first year pitching for the Red Storm, Aryn Feickert went 21-6. She was named PacWest Pitcher of the Year.

“Duncan actually got injured last year,” Simkins said. “Having Feickert definitely softened that blow. She pitched great.”

Aryn Feickert has followed up with a 19-5 record to date this year. Even that record is deceiving as her team has only averaged one run per game on offense in her five losses. The team averages 7.5 runs per game.

Unlike Michelle Duncan, Aryn Feickert’s demeanor on the mound appears less tense, sometimes almost jovial.

“It is a clear contrast to Duncan,” Reiter said. “Aryn usually has a smile on her face.”

Again, looks can be deceiving. “Aryn has a poker face on the mound,” Mark Feickert said. “She has the same intensity as the other pitchers. She is just very good at hiding her emotions.”

THE CATCHER:  The catcher is the captain of the defense. She receives every pitch and is involved in every play. Few people understand the complex training that it takes to develop a great catcher. She needs to spend a great deal of time in work and drills to develop the many different duties and responsibilities of a catcher. Everything from receiving the pitch, to shifting and blocking, to fielding pop-ups and bunts, and all different kinds of throws. What seems like a very simplistic position, in fact, is actually the most complex.

Marla Reiter, Batting Average: .381, Slugging Percentage .714, Fielding Percentage .991

Marla Reiter
Marla Reiter

“Marla was a little league legend,” said Central High School (Rolinda, Calif.) coach Scott Gorton. “Everyone knew all about her before she got to high school. By the sixth game, she had replaced the senior captain catcher as the starter. The next year, she was the team leader both statistically and in the dugout as a sophomore. By the time she left she had turned our program into a perennial winner that has carried on since she has left.”

Similar to Michelle Duncan, Reiter did not get the Division I offers that many felt she deserved.

“She was the best defensive catcher in the state,” Gorton said. “She just had not achieved the offensive prowess that the recruiters wanted to see.”

Those skills have developed over Reiter’s time at Dixie State. On a team full of offensive power, Reiter has fit right in this year. She is currently fourth on the team in batting average, first in slugging percentage and third in on-base percentage.

“Marla has improved offensively each year while maintaining her defensive excellence,” Simkins said. “She is a four-year starter and a definite leader on the team.”

When asked about recruiting Reiter, Simkins laughs. “Well again, we were looking at another player. But she caught our eye and she has just a terrific and infectious demeanor. We knew she would be an asset to the team.”

Marla Reiter, NCAA D-II West Region action, Dixie State vs. UC San Diego, St. George, Utah, May 10, 2014 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, St. George News
Marla Reiter, NCAA D-II West Region action, Dixie State vs. UC San Diego, St. George, Utah, May 10, 2014 | Photo by Robert Hoppie, St. George News

Reiter can be seen doing various moves behind the plate after every out.

“I know that the fans are entertained,” Reiter said. “But they are actually signals I am making to various players in the field. They only see me because I am at the plate. The players out in the field are actually performing the same signals simultaneously.”

Reiter can explain best exactly what a batter faces against the two team aces.

“I know it is difficult for them because I have to make the same adjustments,” she said. “Adjusting from a drop-ball to a rise-ball pitcher in the next game takes extra focus. And the pitcher makes adjustments as well, depending on where the batter positions herself in the box. Of course, I usually know where the pitch is going. The batter does not.”

“It is certainly a luxury having both pitchers,” Simkins said. In the postseason last year, Simkins let the weather dictate who got the start. “It was interesting. When the wind was blowing in, I started Feickert because her style induces pop flys. When the wind was blowing out, I started Duncan because her style leads to ground balls.”

Last year’s postseason success took them all the way to the D-II semifinals, where the Red Storm lost to eventual National Champion West Texas A & M. And with the dynamic trio of Duncan, Feickert and Reiter, maybe this time Dixie State will win it all.

DSU softball website via DSU Athletics

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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