Graceful on the field

This is the first high school story I’ve posted. It is on a local softball player who has verbally committed to play for James Madison. It ran in the Daily News-Record on May 19, 2014.

BRIDGEWATER, Va. — Sometimes things are hard for Natalie Helmick. A victim, perhaps, of her long arms and longer legs and their relationship with Earth’s gravitational pull, the Turner Ashby High School sophomore’s coordination comes and goes.

Just this week, she tripped going up the stairs at school one morning. There were no casualties, but the incident illustrates in a tidy way the difference between Helmick in real life and Helmick in softball.

“My mom asks me all the time,” the 5-foot-9 pitcher said, laughing. “‘You just make it look so easy. I don’t understand.’ She’s like, ‘One minute, you’re on the ground falling and the next…’”

She’s pitching like an ace, dominating with a drop ball that breaks at borderline right angles and a delivery so smooth, it makes its own WD-40.

“I would say definitely growing up, but I think she’s kind of grown into her body,” TA coach Laura Bowman said. “And it’s not even that. It’s the confidence she has out on the mound. When she’s out on the mound, she’s full force. There’s not clumsiness.”

None at all.

The 15-year-old Helmick – the daughter of Kevin and Mary Helmick – has already verbally committed to Division I James Madison, doing so in September and rejecting overtures from, notably, Tennessee and Ohio State. She has helped make the Knights one of the area’s top teams this season, leading them to a 17-0 record.

TA has outscored opponents 183-22 and has eight players batting better than .400, including Helmick, who’s hitting .490 (25-for-51) with two home runs and a team-best 23 RBIs. Her on-base percentage is .542 and she’s slugging .784 to give her a Ruthian OPS of 1.951.

In the circle, the rangy right-hander is 15-0 with a 0.95 ERA. Helmick has struck out 85 batters in 81 innings and allowed just 40 hits and 11 earned runs while coming back from Tommy John surgery last spring.

Since the surgery, Helmick said, she’s throwing harder than ever. She said her fastball is up a few miles per hour to 63, but what makes Helmick so dominant is that drop ball, a pitch she’s been throwing since she was about 10 years old.

It’s a pitch, Helmick said, that came naturally after she started pitching about two years earlier. Since then, the drop has become her do-everything pitch. She throws it when she needs a strike and she throws it when she wants a strikeout.

“She has different levels of drop ball that can come in here and look like a strike and then it doesn’t,” said senior catcher Bre Bosley, who is batting .364 (16-for-44) with a home run, nine RBIs and a team-high 14 walks. “… Her drop ball is pretty good.”

It doesn’t even matter if the batter knows it’s coming.

“My thing is, you can know when the pitch is coming, but you’ve still got to hit it,” Helmick said. “I can still blow it by you. I can still get you swinging. I mean, you can know a changeup’s coming, but you’ve still got to hit it.”

Bowman said she loves Helmick’s stone-cold presence. The sixth-year coach said it’s exactly how a pitcher should be and that it’s an attitude necessary for a pitcher to be successful — and certainly if that pitcher is going to be dominant.

“Oh my gosh,” Bowman said. “The attitude that she has as a pitcher, I haven’t seen it since I’ve been here.”

Helmick described that attitude — which is just for softball; off the field, she’s modest and amiable — as a love of competition. She said her favorite time to pitch is in the seventh inning of a tie game. She said she wants the pressure, she wants to be in control and she wants to be a leader.

“It’s being up on the mound and saying my stuff is better than yours — I can strike you out,” Helmick said. “Having that mentality in my head that I can do this: I can strike them out; they’re not better than me.”

In the meantime, she just needs to be more careful on the stairs.


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