When Michele Smith surveys today's landscape of college softball pitchers, she sees a talent pool vastly more advanced than when she dominated the game at Oklahoma State.
The veteran ESPN softball analyst, a two-time All-American in the early '90s, won gold medals in two Olympic Games, and credits an array of factors for the higher level of pitching in the college ranks.
"They're very experienced because they're playing a lot of travel ball," she said. "And the kids are just big and tremendously strong nowadays. I used to be considered a big, strong pitcher [at 5-foot-11, 155 pounds], and now I'd be considered small. A lot of these kids are 6 foot, 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. They're big, strong women who are being trained great.
"Where these pitchers are at their age is far more advanced than I ever was in college," she said.
You won't find a better judge of softball pitching skills than Smith, who earned earn a place in the National Softball Hall of Fame, and also became an icon of the sport in Japan. She's the ultimate ambassador of the game, devoting countless hours to instructing young players around the country in her "Gold Camps."
Smith has seen the majority of this year's top crop from ESPN's broadcast booth.
"Most of these kids throw in the mid-to-high 60s," she said. "The key that always made me and [fellow Olympic pitching star] Lisa Fernandez the pitchers [that] we were was not [just] the velocity, but also the movement and diversity of pitches. A lot of these kids are learning to do that at a younger age. I did that in my late 20s; these kids are doing it as freshmen and sophomores. They're just developing sooner."
Here is Smith's assessment of the top arms in college softball as tournament play gets under way. Regional action begins May 19, and the Women's College World Series is June 2-8 in Oklahoma City.
Stephanie Brombacher, Florida, senior: "She has great east and west movement with her curveball/screwball. She'll throw an off-speed pitch as well. She's had a little bit of an injury this year, so she's had to take some time off. It'll be interesting to see how it plays into them getting to Oklahoma City. If she's injured, I think they're going to struggle. If she can get back on pace and stay healthy, I think there's a good chance the Gators will get there. She's experienced and strong, and thrown in some very big games. She's a leader."
Kelsi Dunne, Alabama, senior: "She's got great movement. She developed a new pitch this year, an off-speed drop that I think is really helping to change her game. She's got a very good rise ball. Just a workhorse.
"This kid is tough. She's given up some big walk-off home runs in her career, but she continues to bounce back. Her head coach, Patrick Murphy, said he's just amazed at how mentally strong she is, because a lot of kids would have cracked, giving up big hits like that. But she just keeps getting back in that circle, continuing to be one of the best pitchers in the country despite some of the heartbreaking losses she's had. I respect her tremendously.
"She should get them to the College World Series."
Dallas Escobedo, Arizona State, freshman: "They're ranked No. 1 in the country and I haven't seen her pitch this year, though I saw her when she was younger. She's a big, strong kid. And she has a lot of experience from playing high-level travel ball, which will help her. She also has a teammate, Hillary Bach, who is a junior and will help take some pressure off Dallas. So the two of them together are a great one-two punch, and I think that's one of the things it'll take this year to win, because everybody is strong. I think ASU will make it to Oklahoma City because they have a good staff."
Kenzie Fowler, Arizona, sophomore: "She's been injured on and off, but she helped lead her team to the championship series last year as just a freshman. The key is to get her healthy, and keep Arizona's strong offense scoring runs to help her out."
Jolene Henderson, California, junior: "She's having a great year and had some big wins against some ranked teams. She has a great changeup to keep hitters off balance. And she's stingy when it comes to giving up runs."
Blaire Luna, Texas, sophomore: "She's a good young pitcher with a good drop ball. As a freshman, she came close to leading her team to the College World Series. I think Blaire has the ability to, but last year Texas' offense struggled a little bit down the road. This year the offense has just been doing great. Texas lost its No. 1 hitter [Lexy Bennett] with a broken arm last month, but if they can get her back for the postseason, that'll help Blaire."
Keilani Ricketts, Oklahoma, sophomore: "She basically matched Chelsea Thomas when I called the Oklahoma-Missouri game for ESPN in April. She's a lefty with a dominating curveball. She throws into righties and away from lefties. She'll throw a screwball as well, and also has a very good changeup that helps set up her other pitches. She's very strong mentally even though she's young. She's a true leader, but one of her great assets is that she's just a battler. Very competitive. She has great will and desire. She has a young team around her, but if they can score some runs, and don't make defensive miscues, I think there's a good chance they'll get to Oklahoma City."
Jordan Taylor, Michigan, senior: "She's a good pitcher with lots of experience and leads her team well. My biggest concern with Michigan is that the Big Ten is not quite as strong as the Pac-10, the Big 12 and the SEC. So my worry is that if they meet up with any of the strong teams from those conferences, they'll get bounced out early. That's what happened to them last year when they played Tennessee."
Chelsea Thomas, Missouri, redshirt sophomore: "She led her team to the College World Series her freshman year. Her sophomore year, she had a stress fracture in her forearm. I saw her recently against Oklahoma, and she's devastating. She throws the ball high 60s, low 70s. Great drop ball, good rise ball, but a phenomenal changeup that sets up her speed and velocity. She has great movement in the down part of the zone. She's just very confident now and mentally strong. In my opinion, she'll definitely take Missouri to Oklahoma City."
Ellen Renfroe, Tennessee, freshman: "She's been a big surprise this year. She has great movement, with a great drop and rise. Even though she's young, she has a tendency to take everything in stride on the pitching rubber. She just has this ability not to worry. And she has a great offense with a lot of speed around her, which helps her."