For most people, the big question surrounding the Regina softball team this season centered on the pitching circle.
As in, who would be in it?
For veteran coach Jon Prottsman, the question was less about who would step into the pitching role but how she would handle it.
Sophomore Sara Lehman has given Prottsman the answer he both wanted and expected.
Lehman hasn’t just taken over the Regina pitching duties, she has flourished in her first season as the Regals primary hurler.
The sophomore brings a 14-8 record and sparkling 1.12 ERA into the Class 2A state tournament, where No. 10 Regina (23-14) will face eighth-ranked Durant (27-8) Tuesday at Rogers Sports Complex in Fort Dodge.
“I knew she could do this,” Prottsman said of Lehman. “I think Sarah is the best athlete on the team. The only problem with Sara is she doesn’t know how good she can be.”
The answer to the Regals’ pitching question wasn’t always so clear.
Last season Regina split its pitching chores with a trio of pitchers working between 59 and 96 innings.
Lehman shared part of the work, posting a 3-4 record in eight starts while logging a 3.19 ERA in 591/3innings.
It didn’t take long this season for Lehman to offer an answer to the pitching conundrum.
The sophomore right-hander won four of her first five starts, allowing just one earned run in 31 innings to open the season, and she hasn’t slowed since.
“She has made huge, huge improvements,” junior shortstop Kennedy Brown said of Lehman. “Everybody thought this year we would split pitchers and Sarah is just dominating. She is taking us through games and she’s going strong.”
After her freshman season, Lehman focused on her pitching role. Two mornings a week throughout the offseason she worked on her craft.
Lehman spent time developing her rise ball and curve, she increased her velocity and most of all she focused on her command.
“Control and hitting my spots were the two big things,” Lehman said. “I think that has helped.”
That work has showed on the field and in the box score.
Lehman has lowered her WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) from 1.53 last season to 0.98 this year helping to cut down on the big innings that haunted her last year.
“Her control is much better,” Prottsman said. “She’ll maybe have one bad inning, but she hasn’t had two innings like that very much.”
Lehman elected to forgo soccer in the spring in an effort to get a jump on softball season.
She came into the season ready and has solidified herself as a true ace.
Lehman has 207 strikeouts in 1561/3innings this season and has allowed just 25 earned runs.
After averaging 3.1 strikeouts per seven innings last season, Lehman has fanned 9.3 hitters per seven innings this season.
Her 207 strikeouts rank fifth in Class 2A and she has allowed two earned runs or less in 19 of her 23 starts.
“I had a little more practice, a little more time to work on pitching and I think that has helped,” Lehman said. “I feel like a different player.”
Lehman credits her teammates for helping her settle into her role this season.
Teammates say they have always had confidence in Lehman.
“I’m really confident in her, I think we all are,” junior center fielder Jenny Wick said. “She has had a great season so far and we look forward to doing more.”
That confidence helped Lehman be at her best during Regina’s run through the postseason.
In three Regional wins, Lehman has allowed two earned runs on 10 hits in 22 innings while striking out 32.
Lehman has struck out 10 or more batters in four of her last five starts.
“I think she knows the kids depend on her,” Prottsman said. “That is her job right now to lead this group and make people hit her pitch.”
Reach Ryan Murken at 319-339-7369 or firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @rmmurken.
Innings: 156 1/3
Opponent’s Batting Average: .169