NORMAL - Tricia Gaither will earn her elementary education degree in December, aspiring to be a teacher and coach. This spring, she's getting a head start on the elementary part.
The Illinois State senior has used a basic - yes, elementary - approach on the softball field. It has produced A-plus results for the former Olympia High School star heading into this weekend's Missouri Valley Conference series against Southern Illinois at Carbondale.
After batting .234, .203 and .252 her first three ISU seasons, Gaither is hitting .373 with team-highs of 24 runs, 28 hits and a .461 on-base percentage. Her production in the leadoff spot has helped the youthful Redbirds to an 18-8 record and 7-1 Missouri Valley mark, good for second place behind 7-0 Missouri State and ahead of 5-1 Southern Illinois.
"I guess I've learned to be more relaxed and take a pitch and to not think about anything - kind of a 'just go in there and hit the ball' approach," Gaither said. "This is the most relaxed I've felt. Maybe it's because it's my fourth year here. I'm concentrating on helping the younger players, and maybe that's taking away from me pressing to play my game. I see how stressed they are at times, and I don't want to be stressed, too."
Gaither understands the stress. She's felt it, even after playing in four straight Class A state tournaments at Olympia and winning the title her senior year.
Gaither became the Illinois High School Association career hits leader at Olympia. Yet, the transition to college softball was difficult for the Redbirds' third baseman, particularly in the batter's box.
"We had so much success in high school, but it's a whole new step up in playing Division I," Gaither said. "Players are as good if not better than you. To adjust to that level of play was pretty tough. Defensively, I think I did it. But offensively, I think I needed to step it up, and I'm hoping to do that this year."
Gaither was ISU's defensive player of the year last season, totaling 150 assists from third base. She has a .971 career fielding percentage, with just four errors in 84 chances this year.
Her progression offensively was slowed in 2004 by two broken fingers which wiped out nearly half of her sophomore season. Filling in at catcher, she was injured on a play at the plate.
Gaither bounced back to score 22 runs with a .327 on-base percentage last spring, but already has set a career-high for runs scored this year. The speedy left-handed hitter also is 6 for 6 in stolen base attempts and 25 of 30 for her career.
"At the beginning of the year, I was in the No. 1 spot and I got pushed down to No. 2 because I wasn't doing my job (getting on base)," Gaither said. "It motivated me to step it up. I am back to leading off now, and it feels pretty good."
Included in Gaither's totals are seven doubles and one home run. She had 13 doubles and two homers her first three seasons combined.
Why the increased power?
Gaither attributes it to offseason work with strength and conditioning coach Rohrk Cutchlow.
"This is the first time we've had him for a whole year, and his program is one of the best," Gaither said. "I think the sport specific things he does have helped me a lot and our team a lot."
ISU coach Melinda Fischer said the added strength has enabled Gaither to "drive the ball a little more than she was able to early on (at ISU) or in high school."
"In high school, they relied a lot on the bunt and the slap and could beat it out consistently. In our game, people can defend that," Fischer said. "She's had to really work on that third dimension, and that's hitting away, and she's done a great job with that this year."
Fischer has been similarly impressed with Gaither's work off the field.
Gaither is a team captain along with junior pitcher Shannon Nicholson, and has been instrumental in acclimating a talented six-member freshman class to Division I softball, her coach said.
"She has really been able to guide them through some things and been very patient," Fischer said. "You can't expect somebody who's never been in our program to come in and get it right away. They're going to keep getting it all the way through the season. She's been real patient and been a good leader."
Gaither, who is engaged to be married next year to former Olympia and ISU baseball player Brandon Gale, plans to stay involved in softball beyond this season. She will coach the Oly Fire 10-and-under travel team this summer, and hopes to coach softball wherever she lands as a teacher.
"She would be an awesome coach," Fischer said. "She's creative, she's inventive, she's thrifty, and she can think on her feet. I think that makes for a real viable coach and a real viable educator. You can make adjustments. If something doesn't work, you're able to do something else that works better."