SB : Hop step: Caira works to eliminate pitching flaw, lead SU back to postseason play

first_imgJenna Caira took out her frustration with a bat. The disgruntled ace of the Syracuse softball team couldn’t take it anymore. After a full practice of working on nothing but her right foot, she needed a release.‘There was one time where we only did work on the hop for one practice,’ Caira said. ‘And I was just so mentally exhausted.’Syracuse associate head coach Wally King noticed that pent-up frustration and pulled her aside. He took her out to the field of the SU Softball Stadium to let loose.‘He would just toss me some balls,’ Caira said, ‘and I would just hit as hard as I could to get the frustration out.’What had SU’s star riled up was a problem that originated more than 15 years ago as a youngster in Toronto. Caira, a junior right-handed pitcher, has a flaw in her delivery, known as a crow hop. Prior to releasing each pitch, her right foot leaves the ground, and she takes a small ‘hop’ forward before the ball leaves her hand. According to the NCAA rules, this is illegal.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textAfter a regular season in which Caira won 17 games, umpires began calling her for illegal pitches in postseason play. With each illegal pitch allowing a runner to advance one base, every violation hurt SU. As a result, head coach Leigh Ross pulled Caira in the first inning of two of Syracuse’s five postseason games, and she didn’t pitch in a third.In preparation for her junior season, Caira tried everything to reduce the height of her hop. If it couldn’t be removed entirely, it needed to be minimized in hopes of remaining in the circle for Syracuse this season.‘It’s a tough situation,’ Caira said. ‘Unfortunately when they call it, it ruins the rhythm.’The crow hop has been in Caira’s motion since she first began working with a pitching coach at the age of four.Her early coaches emphasized the importance of driving off the mound as a young pitcher. So as Caira learned to harness the muscles in her legs, she ended up pushing in the wrong direction.‘I would really push off the mound going out, but unfortunately I guess I was going up,’ she said.But Caira also remembers how quickly she tried to correct the problem. She remembers going to an old schoolyard in Canada with her mother and a bucket of balls.There, Caira would pitch. Each time, she had to focus on keeping her foot down. And no matter how small the lift was — an inch or several — it didn’t matter.When it wasn’t her mother, her longtime pitching coach Todd Martin helped her. Caira said Martin would leave work on his lunch break to work with her at a local ballpark.And even Martin’s trained eye sometimes had trouble spotting her hop.‘You hardly even see it,’ he said in a phone interview. ‘If your back foot is dragging on the ground or if it’s a half-inch above the ground, there’s not really an advantage gained by doing it.’Caira was called for her first illegal pitch at the age of 12 while playing travel ball in Canada. With her history, Ross said fear might be the biggest thing that runs through Caira’s mind in practice. When she works on reducing the hop — which is every day — the question of ‘What if?’ is there.‘That’s a really scary thought to think, ‘I have to change my pitching style. I have to change something here. Am I going to be as good of a pitcher?” Ross said in a phone interview.Caira works almost extensively with new assistant coach Mike Bosch through an array of drills that all try to keep her right foot dragging.She throws ‘dry pitches’ without a ball around the infield dirt, looking back after each one to make sure a drag mark is visible. A rubber band is tied to her ankle and pulled by Bosch as soon as Caira pushes off the mound. And she practices on a ramp with a down angle in hopes of pushing straight out instead of up.That has led to an 80 percent reduction in the size of the hop, Caira estimates.‘Lisaira (Daniels) was saying in the outfield that it looks really good,’ Caira said. ‘Even the coaches were saying certain things like that.’But if the 20 percent causes problems, Caira and the coaching staff are faced with a dilemma.Caira practices throwing with less velocity, which allows her to drag her foot on every pitch. She’s found a balance of keeping her foot down and staying legal. It’s just a question of whether or not 75 percent of her can be effective.SU catcher Lacey Kohl says she can. Though the velocity is not at its peak, Caira’s pitches move more as a result of it.‘I feel like she can totally still win games,’ Kohl said in a phone interview. ‘The spin is a lot faster, so the ball is going to be moving more.’Kohl said this will lead to ground balls the Orange defense can handle.If that proves false, though, the bulk of the pitching weight is handed to sophomore Stacy Kuwik. She ‘broke out of her shell,’ Kohl said, when forced to take over for Caira in the Big East tournament last year. Her seven innings of scoreless relief got the team to the Big East championship.‘Talk about getting thrown into the fire,’ Ross said. ‘It was a good confidence builder for her and also for the girls to build confidence in her as a pitcher.’All Caira’s work for this season made headway at 10 a.m. on Feb. 12. That’s when Caira prepared to throw the first pitch of the season for Syracuse against Tennessee Tech.Seconds later, she exhaled. An illegal pitch wasn’t called.‘It was a little bit in the back of my head,’ she said. ‘I’m like, ‘OK, we can just continue on.’ I think if I think about it too much, it’s going to affect the way I throw.’She must not have thought about it.In SU’s first tournament of the season, Caira won all four games for the Orange. No illegal pitches were called, and she didn’t have to lower her velocity.A week later, the results were similar. Caira said she has only been called for one illegal pitch in 37 innings thus far.‘Now we’ve got a few games under our belt, and she hasn’t been called,’ Ross said. ‘You don’t want to totally forget that it could be called, but you’re starting to feel a little more comfortable.’And that’s why Caira continues to work. She won’t settle for that 80 percent reduction. She wants to eliminate the problem and never have to worry about it.Each day in practice, a portion of the time is devoted to that right foot. True enough, it’s not enough time to make her resort to the bat again. But it’s about not settling with what she’s done so far.‘I’m not just going to be like, ‘Oh, they didn’t call me the first weekend, so everything is going to be fine,” Caira said. ‘But I’m not going to let that affect the way I’m playing now.‘I’m here to lead this team, and if I can’t pitch every game, then I have to find other ways that I can help them.’[email protected] Comments Published on February 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm Contact Michael: [email protected] | @Michael_Cohen13center_img Facebook Twitter Google+last_img

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