Here's a piece of advice for batters gearing up to face Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.) senior pitcher Keilani Ricketts: Don't look her in the eyes. If you do, your knees may start trembling.
That's because Ricketts stares down hitters with a fierce scowl that'd make Tiger Woods flinch. Her squinted eyes and narrow eyebrows send a clear message to any batter brave enough to step up to the plate: "Don't mess with me."
"A lot of people tell me I'm intimidating, but I don't do it on purpose," Ricketts says. "I got it from my mom. It's funny because we'll go and see relatives and look at pictures of my mom, and I laugh because we both have the glare."
Combine that menacing stare with Ricketts' 6-foot-3 frame and you get a naturally intimidating presence. Add in her deceptive left-handed throwing motion and wicked four-pitch arsenal (screwball, sinker, changeup and a fastball that's been clocked at 68 mph), and you have one of the nation's best softball players.
Ricketts went 11-1 with a 0.30 ERA as a junior, allowing just two earned runs on the season. Along the way she compiled 172 strikeouts to earn San Francisco Chronicle Metro Softball Player of the Year honors.
"I've never seen a pitcher be able to do the things she does with the ball," says Mitty coach Sarah Thomas. "She hates to have anyone even touch her pitches."
That seems to be Ricketts' only flaw. She's a perfectionist to a fault.
In her mind, strikeouts are mandatory and one hit is too many. If a pitch isn't moving the way she wants it to, she becomes incensed, often loses focus, and keeps throwing the same pitch over and over.
"When I'm having a bad day it's because I'm not able to focus," she admits. "I'm dwelling on a pitch -- I'm not adjusting to make it work. That's when my catcher and coach get me to breathe and focus."
Of course, Ricketts' bad days are good pitchers' best days. That means the opposition typically tries to get any edge, even if it means constantly testing her nerves with what she describes as "obnoxious cheers."
What her opponents don't realize is that all those taunts do is pump her up even more -- as if she needs the edge.
"They think it's bothering me, but it makes me pitch better because I get madder and they get more intimidated," Ricketts says.
With all that passion, it's hard to believe Ricketts didn't take softball seriously as a kid. But the truth is her parents and older sisters, Samantha and Stephanie, actually had to shove her out the door just to get her to play with them.
Finally, something changed after her
"I was never considered one of the best on the team," Ricketts says. "My coach would always tell me that I could be so great because of my speed and power. I just had to make myself better."
After realizing she had the potential to be exceptionally good, Ricketts dedicated the
summer before her sophomore year to the game.
She went to the diamond every day, throwing 40 reps of each pitch in her catalog. She also did fielding drills and took loads of batting practice. Through it all she discovered a deep love for the sport she once played solely to appease her family.
"She has it all physically, but she was a little immature growing up," says Samantha, an
All-American senior first baseman at Oklahoma. "Then she saw that she had the potential to be great. Ever since then she's really improved herself."
Once the younger Ricketts dedicated herself to softball, she skyrocketed to the top of nearly every major college coach's wish list. Of course, only one school had a chance to land the prize recruit.
Ricketts idolized Samantha growing up and was keen on following in her footsteps after high school. So when she got the call from Oklahoma, the younger Ricketts jumped at the chance to
follow big sis again. She even plans on taking Samantha's No. 10 jersey next year.
"She's going to have to adjust to the college life and game," Samantha says. "She has to know that she's not going to go out there and strike out everybody every day because that can be one of the most frustrating things."
Ricketts has already made great strides in
developing her mental toughness the past few years. After giving up a game-winning 10th-inning homer in last year's West Catholic Athletic League final -- the only hit she allowed -- Ricketts was praised by her coach for shrugging off the heartbreaking loss and regrouping to lead the Monarchs to the Central Coast Section Division II title.
Of course, it wasn't as easy for Ricketts to let go of the loss as Thomas thought.
"The next couple of weeks I couldn't stop
thinking about it," Ricketts says. "But I was able to take it and learn from it. Better now than later."
Ricketts recovered from the disappointment of the WCAL title game in time for the summer
season, leading her San Jose Sting club team to 17th place at the ASA Gold National Championships and playing in the inaugural Under Armour All-America Game.
Through it all she remained as intimidating
as ever in the circle, staring down batters with
that fierce scowl and making her opponents' knees tremble.
Brian A. Giuffra covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.