One of Devon Thomas’ chief concerns as Brenau University’s softball coach is assuring his defense is constantly alert.
It’s not for a lack of talent, effort or execution. A year after tallying the best fielding percentage in the NAIA, the Golden Tigers are tied for 11th in that category this season.
It’s because any time freshman pitcher Kathleen Daniel is in the circle — and she usually is — not many balls find the field.
“When you have a pitcher who throws as well as she does, you’ve really got to keep your defense on their toes,” Thomas said. “If she gets in a rhythm, they may not see a ball for a while.”
Daniel, meanwhile, has enjoyed a historic freshman season.
Earlier this week, she earned NAIA National Pitcher of the Week recognition while picking up her fifth straight Southern States Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Week honor. The freshman padded her nation-leading 22 wins with another four last week, giving up just two runs and striking out 36 over 28 innings, which featured a no-hitter against Coastal Georgia.
Daniel’s 333 strikeouts are the best in the nation by a wide margin, with the closest pitcher having fanned 122 batters. Her 0.36 ERA is second nationally behind only Oklahoma City’s Jaden Shores, who has tossed 135 fewer innings than Daniel.
She also leads the NAIA in hits allowed per game (two) and opponents’ batting average (0.090).
It’s almost too much for the freshman to believe.
“I’m very, very surprised at how well I’ve done this season,” Daniel said. “It’s surreal. I never expected to be at the top of any chart for anything, pitching-wise. It’s a big shock when you look on the stats and you see your name at the top of almost every list.”
As a result, Brenau is nearing the pinnacle of another prominent list. With a month left in the regular season, the Golden Tigers (29-5) were ranked eighth in Tuesday’s NAIA Softball Coaches Poll and are tied for first in the SSAC after being picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll.
Daniel — who goes by Eli, a shortening of her middle name, Elizabeth — has had a huge hand in that success, pitching 174 of her team’s 232 innings.
“She has the perfect makeup on the mound. She very seldom gets rattled,” Thomas said. “She’s very focused when she’s out there and very composed as a freshman in her first season of college and pitching so well.”
Those traits manifested themselves during Daniel’s college debut, when she struck out 20 batters and gave up just one unearned run in a 2-1 win at Piedmont College. Her strikeout total was the most ever for a freshman pitcher and just one off from tying the record for most all-time in a seven-inning contest in NAIA history.
Daniel even christened Ernest Ledford Grindle Athletics Park with a no-hitter as the Golden Tigers notched an 8-0, run-rule victory against Talladega College in the venue’s first game Feb. 10.
Though she acknowledged some opening-night nerves affected her before first pitch, the freshman relied on an old tactic to keep her composure.
“I was taught that it’s just me and the catcher,” Daniel said. “I’m throwing to the catcher, there’s no one else there and no one else really matters. When I pitch, I don’t hear a thing. I hate to say it, but I don’t hear my teammates cheering for me.”
Even in Brenau’s losses, Daniel has been dominant.
The Locust Grove native struck out 21 of the 25 batters she faced and didn’t allow an earned run in a 2-1, extra-innings loss to No. 5 Georgia Gwinnett College on March 3. The winning run reached home on a fielding error after starting the eighth inning at second base under the international tiebreaker rule.
“She struck out that many, and we still lose a game,” Thomas said. “That’s kind of unheard of.”
Daniel bounced back the next day to pick up a win against No. 13 LSU-Alexandria, even when she could have wilted under pressure.
In the sixth inning, Kimber Gruehl crushed a two-run homer to cut the Golden Tigers’ lead to 4-2. But Daniel stayed composed against the heart of the order and ended the rally with a pair of strikeouts.
“Usually after someone gives up a home run, they’ll get a little rattled and it’ll take them a while to get focused again,” Thomas said. “It didn’t take her any time at all. After they hit the home run, she was stone-faced, acted like nothing happened and went on to win the game.”
That kind of calmness under pressure, especially coming from a freshman, is why Thomas already groups Daniel with the four All-American pitchers he has coached during his 15 years at Brenau.
Despite taking the NAIA by storm to the tune of more than 13 strikeouts per game, Daniel said she’s just trying to enjoy college and the opportunity to play softball. After suffering a stress fracture in her back when she was 12 years old and a dislocated kneecap during her junior year of high school, it’s no wonder why.
“The mound has always been a kind of calming place for me,” the freshman said. “I love pitching. You put me on the mound, and I’m going to do work. I’m so happy to be on that field and actually play.”
If Daniel continues at her current pace, her teammates in the field won’t have to make many plays behind her.