The Daily Iowan

Looper brings new pitching to Iowa softball

MOLLY IRENE OLMSTEAD

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The Iowa softball team’s pitchers stand 5 feet away from their targets with softballs in their hands. Junior Chelsea Lyon and sophomore Kayla Massey whip the ball forward, only using their elbows, forearms, and fingers. They hyper-focus on the mechanics of their release.

The drill is called spins, and it’s something head coach Marla Looper brought with her to Iowa — something from her days as Texas’ pitching coach from 1999-2010.

The pitchers feel the ball in their hands down to the smallest details; they notice their finger pressure, where the ball is coming off of each digit, and exactly how the wrist snaps.

"We’re focusing on how we literally spin the ball out of our hands," Looper said. "We can practice the full [pitching] cycle over and over and over and think we’re throwing a curve or a drop. But if we don’t have the right spin off our fingers, we’re not going to get the result we want."

Neither Lyon nor Massey had ever tried the drill before Looper became Iowa’s skipper in 2010; they had never in their entire lives had a pitching coach also be their head coach.

"Coach understands where we’re coming from because she has been in the same position," Massey said. "She tells us how she would approach a certain aspect of pitching, and that helps a lot. She’s not just a coach who doesn’t understand what I’m going through. She has been there and done it."

Looper also introduced new equipment to the bullpen, including weighted balls and those that are larger softballs larger than normal. The heavy ball weighs in around two pounds; an average softball is eight ounces. The larger ball is 16 inches in circumference, up from the standard 12.

Iowa’s newest pitching coach combines her new drills and equipment with a fresh philosophy of awareness. Looper uses the heavier and larger softballs to help Lyon and Massey become aware of the minute details of their pitching motions, specifically when the ball leaves their fingers.

"If you use the same weight, you feel like you’re going through the motions — but you don’t know exactly what you’re doing until we change that weight a little bit," Looper said. "Then you feel a difference and you’re more cognizant of what your body is doing, so when you go back to the regular weight, your body knows a little more what you’re doing."

Looper’s college career at Florida State ended with a 0.78 ERA, which still stood as the school’s sixth-best career mark at the beginning of the 2012 season. Her achievements as a Seminole are still remembered; Iowa’s head coach was named one of the top 50 softball players in ACC history in 2002.

The pitcher’s career continued after graduating from Florida State in 1995; she spent a few years coaching at both Kansas and Iowa State before settling in with the Longhorns in 1999. Looper helped coach the team to three College World Series appearances and nine NCAA Tournament berths. Texas’ pitching coach also contributed to back-to-back Big 12 tournament and regular-season championships in 2002-03.

"She’s definitely qualified as a pitching coach based on her past as a pitcher," Massey said. "But more than that, she’s just a really good coach, too."

The coach’s impressive résumé has helped the Hawkeye pitchers. Massey’s ERA dropped from 3.22 last season to 2.15 this year. Lyon’s improved from 3.35 to 2.46.

"All of the techniques that she has brought along with her from Texas have really helped me as a pitcher," Lyon said. "I feel like I’ve succeeded and grown so much this year."

Follow DI softball reporter Molly Irene Olmstead on Twitter.

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