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June 2, 2012OKLAHOMA CITY | When Patrick Murphy decided to make a change at the pitching coach position on his staff last summer, the University of Alabama's softball coach had a very specific idea of what he wanted in a candidate.
"I think it was important to have somebody that's been there in the big games," Murphy said, "a pitcher that had played Division I softball and was in that pressure-packed situation, gotten to the World Series and played for Team USA. Our sites were set high, for sure."
Not many pitching coaches met that description, but Alabama found everything it wanted in one of it's own. Stephanie VanBrakle, a two-time All-American at UA who took the Crimson Tide to the Women's College World Series three times from 2003-06, was head coach at Samford when Murphy called to offer her the job.
In one short season, VanBrakle has been a driving force behind Alabama's run to try to capture its first softball national championship, with UA today just one victory away from playing in the three-game national championship series. VanBrakle has been instrumental in the development of ace pitcher Jackie Traina, and in forging Traina's iron will in the pitching circle.
"We looked around," Murphy said, "and the more we thought about it, the one that was right under our nose was Steph.
"She brought intensity, hard work, competitiveness. Those are things she brought when she played, and we were hoping she was going to do that same thing when she coached. Without a doubt, she has."
VanBrakle does all the things expected of a pitching coach: She teaches pitches, works on technique and scouts batters. Her approach to the mental game, fashioned from her own experience as a player, is the element that has been primary in fostering the growth of UA's pitching staff.
She started last fall in setting a tone for the pitchers in offseason practices.
"We talked about having a presence in the bullpen and having a little swag," VanBrakle said. "I made each of the pitchers a mirror, and I wrote some quotes and goals for the year. We just kind of went off of that."
Known for her intensity as a player, VanBrakle uses a more easy-going approach as a coach - especially with Traina.
"I have a loose bullpen in practice and before games, and I think Jackie responds better to that," VanBrakle said. "I can't get too tight, I can't get too nervous, because then it feeds off me to her and vice versa. We cut up a little bit."
In pressure situations, VanBrakle reminds Traina of her mechanics. As a pitcher who has been there, VanBrakle has learned not to add to the pressure.
"I don't talk about we need an out in this situation, but more like, 'Remember to spin it, don't try to overthrow,' stuff like that," VanBrakle said. "I want her to think about what her body needs to do, because the rest falls into place after that.
"I try not to get caught up in the moment. The moment is big enough. We just have to have big trust in what we're doing and know if we do all the little things right, the big result is going to happen for us."
One of those big-pressure situations came up Friday night in Alabama's game against Arizona State. The Sun Devils had just taken a 1-0 lead and had runners on first and second with no outs in the fourth inning.
VanBrakle's message was aimed at building Traina's confidence.
"Your spin is going to beat their bats," the coach told the pitcher. "You're better than them and you're going to get us out of this situation. Just remember to spin it."
Traina used that spin and got out of the situation with two strikeouts and an easy grounder. Alabama rallied to win and advanced to the semifinal round.
UA's pitching staff trusts in VanBrakle. They know she has been there.
"She teaches us what it means to be a pitcher in the SEC and what it means to be a pitcher at a college like this," said senior Amanda Locke, who pitched Alabama to victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game and in the opening game of the NCAA regional. "Buying into Steph was easy. She knows what she's doing.
"Her playing in the World Series and us being here at the World Series, that trust that we talk about, it just helps us that much more to we believe in her and trust what she says."
VanBrakle has the pedigree, but she doesn't have to flaunt it with her pitchers.
"I think that's unspoken," she said. "Most of it is unspoken because I did play here, I have that experience and I'm able to relate and understand what it takes to be successful."
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.