For two years, Claire Velaski had to wait her turn.
Pitching just 55 combined innings during her freshman and sophomore seasons, the southpaw from Portland, Ore., sat behind veteran pitchers Brittany Miller and Kendra Strahm on the Linfield softball depth chart.
Even though Velaski pitched most of her innings in relief plus an occasional start, the two years were not considered wasted. Allowed time to adjust to the college game and develop confidence proved to be a valuable opportunity for Velaski in the long run.
“During my freshman and sophomore year, I was very nervous whenever I went in,” reflects Velaski of her first two seasons at Linfield. “I think I learned confidence and determination. Those first two years I was also trying to be perfect but I learned that you don’t have to be because our defense will always make plays.”
Tenth-year head coach Jackson Vaughan echoed the same sentiments as Velaski.
“The maturity and confidence that has grown in Claire over her four-year career has been a lot of fun to watch,” says Vaughan. “As an incoming freshman, she was very unsure of her own abilities and whether or not she really wanted softball to be a part of her college experience. Then I think she started to enjoy the program and push for excellence we look for in all of our players.”
Joining a club coming off a national championship was no easy task for Velaski as a freshman. With the program’s heightened expectations it became paramount for Velaski to establish a role on the team as a reliever.
“Coming in, I knew that would be the case because they were returning two pitchers from a national championship team,” said Velaski of her role as a backup. “I expected that and I tried to make the most of every opportunity. My freshman and sophomore year, I had a lot of fun and being part of the team was great.”
Heading into the 2010 campaign, the coaching staff had questions marks concerning its historically dominant pitching staff. The departures of Miller and Strahm left Vaughan searching for an unproven pitcher to step forward.
While the spring of 2010 evolved into Velaski’s breakout season, Vaughan looks back at the fall of 2009 as an important turning point of Velaski’s growth. During that semester, Velaski studied abroad in New Zealand. Forced to adapt to a new environment on her own, Velaski came back to the McMinnville campus with renewed confidence.
“I think the travel, meeting so many new people, and getting to share her softball knowledge with some of the people in New Zealand really made her a more confident and assertive person,” notes Vaughan.
“When she returned to Linfield and we began to practice you could see a difference in her demeanor and command on the field and she transformed into one of the elite pitchers in our region and a huge reason why our team has been able to continue our run of successful seasons.”
With an opportunity to anchor the pitching staff starting in her junior season, Velaski’s production has been simply remarkable.
As a junior in 2010, Velaski was honored as the Northwest Conference’s Pitcher of the Year. That year she posted a 2.48 ERA and a 20-4 record in 141 2/3 innings. Her 129 strikeouts and opponent batting average of .218 reflect her dominance.
“Going into my junior year, I knew there would be a lot of uncertainties from the pitching standpoint,” explains Velaski. “I just tried to make the most of it.”
Velaski’s encore in 2011 was equally impressive. The senior tallied a 21-1 record and a miniscule 1.82 ERA on her way to being named to the all-NWC first team.
Fellow NWC all-star pitcher Lauren Harvey has enjoyed an up-close view of Velaski’s dominance.
“Claire seems to have a presence on the mound that is intimidating to batters,” explains the junior right-hander. “With her combination of speed and movement, she can be very dominating. She works hard on perfecting her pitches. That gives her the confidence all pitchers need to be successful.”
Velaski’s speed and movement with the ball brought the ‘Cats to the doorstep of a second national championship a season ago. Losing on the final day of the season left a sour taste in the mouth of Velaski and her teammates.
“Last year’s experience of losing the final game was one of the hardest things any of us have been through,” says Velaski, an exercise science major. “It was really disappointing. Remembering how that felt and the drive to get back to where we were has really fueled us.”
Carrying the weight of nation’s No. 1 ranking the entire season, Velaski and the Wildcats are aiming to push toward a national title once more. Calling to mind last year’s experience has only added to the left-hander’s portfolio of experience.
“I pitched a lot of innings in the postseason last year,” explains the senior. “You start to get used to the heat and develop a toughness in the postseason because you’re facing the best hitters in the country. Our hitters are so good. Having to face them everyday in practice has helped the entire pitching staff going into every game. That’s helped us prepare for the postseason.”
Velaski’s postseason savvy is already paying dividends.
In three wins at the Pella, Iowa, regional, Velaski has given up just four hits. She has also tallied one no-hitter.
Regardless of the outcomes of the final games of her career, it is clear to Vaughan that Velaski’s impact on the Linfield program has been immeasurable.
“With Claire’s hard work and the help of our pitching coach, Greg Herman, she has become one of the best pitchers to ever put on a Linfield uniform and someone we will truly miss as a player, teammate, and friend next season,” says Vaughan.
– Eric Evenson ‘11
Transforms from tentative freshman to dominating senior
Director of Sports Information
McMinnville, OR 97128