Liberty pitcher Lexi Trail winds up to pitch against North Carroll in the fourth inning of the Lions win over the Panthers in Hampstead Monday, March 23, 2015.
Liberty pitcher Lexi Trail winds up to pitch against North Carroll in the fourth inning of the Lions win over the Panthers in Hampstead Monday, March 23, 2015. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Three years ago, as Eastern Tech prepared for its first softball state championship game, coach Jack Meyers knew none of his players — or coaches — could replicate the pitching they'd face against Northern-Calvert's Jessica Cummings.

So he rigged a pitching machine to simulate her velocity and movement.

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"Tried to throw a riseball. Try to throw low and away. That kind of thing," Meyers recalled. "You've just got to wing it, when you get to a final or semi and there's that great type of pitcher."

Meyers' efforts proved futile, as Cummings two-hit the Mavericks to keep her 0.00 ERA intact and lead the Patriots to the sixth of what are now eight consecutive Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Class 3A state titles. But as the new season begins for teams throughout the region, a look back at those efforts shows how and why elite pitching is so important for a team's postseason hopes.

Part of it is the nature of the game. Unlike baseball, the mechanics of fast-pitch softball allow teams to ride their best arm almost exclusively through their schedule's more challenging games. And for top-end talent, the demands of big games for their schools rarely exceeds what they regularly encounter on the travel circuit.

"If they pitch travel ball, they're pitching multiple games a day," says Archbishop Spalding coach Nicole Trumpler, who last season saw her team follow its own senior ace, Ali Caulkins, to the private-school Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference title.

Then there's the fact that elite level talent is just so rare. As if it weren't hard enough to hit a 55-mph rise ball and a 45-mph changeup, your average high school team might never face that kind of "stuff" until the deeper rounds of the playoffs.

In a sport that takes the need for repetition and rhythm of baseball and shifts it into overdrive, that combination can be lethal.

"You've just got to cross your fingers you don't face that kind of pitcher," Meyers said.

Of course, it works both ways for area teams with title aspirations. Meyers and the Mavericks rebounded and won the 2014 Class 2A title a year later behind starter Jordan Cargile's three-hitter in the final.

Last year's lone public-school state champion team from the metro area, Manchester Valley, won its second consecutive 1A title behind the dominant pitching of All-Metro Player of the Year Madison Grimm.

She's playing at Hofstra now, but many of last year's top pitchers should be baffling hitters again this season. Five underclassmen earned All-Metro first- or second-team honors as pitchers in 2015.

Liberty's Lexi Trail, now a junior, went 15-3 with a 1.27 ERA before injuries caught up to her late in the season.

Without Trail at full strength, Liberty fell to Middletown of Frederick County in a 2A West region final and finished at No. 6 in The Baltimore Sun Top 15 poll.

With her healthy this season, the program could soar as high as its 2012 state title team, whose Mackenzie Thompson was so dominant that coach Chris Szocik said her only trouble spot came before the game started.

"The more she threw, the stronger she got," Szocik recalled. "If she had a weakness, she didn't want to warm up enough."

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Liberty, Eastern Tech and Manchester Valley were the only metro area public schools to claim softball state titles over the past five seasons.

Severna Park's Haley Simonds and Broadneck's Ally Thompson joined Trail as underclassmen who made All-Metro first team as pitchers. Simonds had a 16-4 record and a 1.91 ERA last season, while Thompson threw one no-hitter and one one-hitter during an 11-6 season that was stronger than her record suggested.

Bel Air's Rayn Gibson and Bryn Mawr's Sydney Stephenson were also underclassmen on last season's second team.

Having a strong starter at March practices is no guarantee of May success, of course.

With travel teams running nearly year round, Trumpler said coaches are best served by monitoring the workload of their strongest players. Those standouts are often the ones coming into camp with the most tread on the tires already.

"To be honest with you, I've checked in with them every week," Trumpler said. "We encourage them to go on travel teams, it helps them become better ballplayers. But I check in with them — Where're you at? What's going on? How is everything feeling? —not just physically but mentally."

And as rare as elite pitching can be, so, too, is elite catching.

After Eastern Tech's runner-up finish in 2013, Meyers had to convert now-senior Sarah Heagy into a catcher. She grew into the position in time for Eastern's 2014 title run, but not without growing pains, including a dicey first bullpen session with Cargile.

"It was so funny," Meyers recalled. "She must've caught like three out of 10."

Hitters that season could relate.

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