NORMAL — Illinois State’s softball team includes the school’s all-time hits leader in Kara Nelson and the career home run leader in Abby Olson. The offense casts a considerable shadow.
Jordan Birch and Megan Warner don’t seem to mind.
Quietly, the junior pitchers have provided the NCAA Tournament-bound Redbirds a solid 1-2 punch in the circle. Just don’t try to figure out who is No. 1 and who is No. 2.
Birch is 17-6 with a 2.89 earned run average in 148 innings. Warner is 14-6 with a 2.76 ERA in 131.2 innings.
They differ in approach but share the workload for ISU (35-17) entering Friday’s 6:30 p.m. Columbia Regional first-round game against host and No. 8-ranked Missouri (46-7).
“They’re nothing alike in terms of their style and their pitching strengths,” ISU head coach Melinda Fischer said. “That’s why I feel this is a staff that could be really effective in this regional format.”
Birch relies largely on a riseball and screwball. She has 163 strikeouts and 43 walks.
Warner focuses on keeping the ball down and getting groundball outs. She has struck out 96 and walked 54.
Birch expects the contrasting styles to be important against Missouri, which defeated the Redbirds 8-2, 9-0 and 10-0 in the regular season.
“Megan and I will definitely have to team up,” Birch said. “The more they see us the stronger they’re going to get and they’re a strong team.
“If you throw one girl and then bring in the other, they’re swinging at pitches they normally wouldn’t because it’s a completely different look.”
Birch came to ISU from Monroe, Wash. She was recruited at a summer tournament by Bill Kennedy, who retired as Redbird pitching coach during Birch’s freshman year. She stayed anyway and says, “I’m very happy here.”
Warner was recruited out of Sherrard High School. Immediately, the two right-handers were competing for innings.
“I think it was a good type of pressure and competition, going at each other,” Warner said. “We came in the same class and both wanting to work toward the same goals.”
Birch called it “friendly competition,” saying she and Warner “are always there to pick each other up.”
Birch has appeared in 82 career games with a 42-23 record. Warner has 81 appearances and a 35-18 mark. The situation is similar to when Shannon Nicholson and Stacy Birk shared the pitching duties from 2004 to 2007.
“Anytime you have that person pushing you every day it’s an advantage as long as you approach it the right way. I think they do,” said Nicholson, now the pitching coach.
“They never seem to let it get to them too much. They both work as hard as they can.”
Fischer liked the varying styles during the recruiting process and envisioned a “pitching staff approach” rather than a clear No. 1.
She said softball is trending that way as hitters and equipment improve.
“Last year in regionals they got valuable experience and I think they should have some confidence,” Fischer said. “They’ve faced No. 1, 2 and 3 (in the country) this year and Missouri is No. 8.”
DePaul (39-13) and Indiana (37-16) meet at 4 p.m. today in the double-elimination tournament. Missouri is led by sophomore pitcher Chelsea Thomas (27-5), a finalist for national player of the year.
“The past games against them didn’t go so well,” Warner said. “I think we’re ready to come out there a new team and play our game.”
Five named all-region: Sophomore catcher Elizabeth Kay was a first-team selection to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Mideast Region team on Thursday, while senior Kara Nelson, juniors Liz Andrews and Jordan Birch and sophomore Jhavon Hamilton were named to the second team.
Nelson is on the team for a fourth straight season.