When lefthander Melissa Ward posted a modest 6-11 record in her freshman season at UC San Diego, few would have predicted the success she’s achieved over the next two-plus years or the role she’s played in elevating the Triton program to new heights. The numbers have certainly added up. With 52 career wins and 370 strikeouts, Ward is second on the all-time list at UCSD in both categories. Her single season record 27 victories last spring earned her second team All-CCAA recognition as the Tritons gained an NCAA Division II Playoff berth. Sporting a 5-3 mark and 1.05 ERA so far as a senior, she’s been instrumental in UCSD’s 11-3 start and posted her first career no-hitter last week. “Melissa is definitely our No. 1 pitcher,” says 2007 CCAA Coach of the Year Patti Gerckens. “She’s a battler on the mound and has a lot of confidence. She’s smart, makes the necessary adjustments, hits her spots and is very hard to rattle. Her teammates have a lot of confidence playing behind her.” The 5-foot-7 Yorba Linda native took time recently to talk about her pitching and this year’s UCSD team.
Q—You’ve had significant jumps in performance between your freshman-sophomore and sophomore-junior seasons and appear to be headed in that direction in 2008. To what do you attribute this ongoing improvement?
WARD—With each season has come so much more experience and that’s only made me a stronger pitcher. With that experience, I’ve gotten to know most of the teams like the back on my hand. I’ve been pitching to some of the girls in our conference for four years now and know exactly what to throw to them. Physically, my pitches are more consistent and have more spin on them then in past years.
Q—No matter the situation, you always appear unflappable when you’re pitching. How did that characteristic develop and how important is it to your success?
WARD—It’s hard for me to think of being anything but levelheaded on the mound. I guess I’ve always been that way and my teammates have come to expect that from me.
Q—At the recent Schutt Sports Leadoff Classic in Phoenix, you threw your first career no-hitter. How noteworthy was that to you?
WARD—In the back of my mind I’ve always hoped that I would throw a no-hitter before I graduate. I’ve come close a couple times, so it felt good to finally get one in.
Q—The 2008 team is off to one of the strongest starts in UCSD’s history at the NCAA Division II level. Does this team have the talent to maintain that performance throughout the year? Why?
WARD—Our team has amazing talent this year. We’ve come up big a few times already this season and I’m confident that we are getting stronger and stronger with every game. We have had a good start, but we are nowhere near peaking. At the beginning of the year we agreed that we are striving for NCAA Championships and I am sure that with our motivation and work ethic we won’t stop until we’re on that plane ride home from Houston.
Q—Outside of yourself, give us a rundown of this year’s Triton pitching staff.
WARD—I think we have one of the strongest pitching staffs we have had in years. Lauren Chastain has started about half the games so far and has dominated. She throws the fastest of our staff but mixes in her change up that really fools opposing batters.
Nicole Fullerton and Christine Zankich have done a great job coming into games as relief pitchers. I’m jealous of both of them because they make hitters swing and look ridiculous with their drop balls. All four of us work really well together. We are all very different pitchers and our differences really compliment each other.
Q—If there were two outs and a runner on third in a tie game, which member of the 2008 UCSD team would you want at the plate?
WARD—Without a doubt I would put any of my teammates up to the plate in that situation. But if I had to choose, I would pick Jenni Habib. She is really consistent and has already come up clutch a couple times this season.
Q—When did you start pitching exclusively? In three-plus years at UCSD, you’ve never had an at bat. Do you ever have the desire to get into the batter’s box?
WARD—I stopped hitting my senior year of high school after having surgery on my pitching wrist. Every once in a while I get to hit in practice and as a joke we say that I’m the secret weapon. I don’t think any of our conference foes will ever see the true wrath of my hitting abilities but I don’t lose sleep at night over that fact.
Q—What is the most difficult thing about pitching that the average viewer would not know?
WARD—The mental game. I can’t even being to tell you about all the things that go on inside my head during a game. I may seem fairly even-keeled but there are always millions of things running through my mind out on the mound.
Q—How important is the catcher to a softball pitcher’s success? How have the different catchers you’ve had at UCSD helped improve your game?
WARD—I’ve been lucky and spoiled all four years to have amazing support and talent behind the plate. I learned so much from Jamie Hurst and Nikki Palmer during my first few years at UCSD. Sophomore year Palmer even taught me how to throw my knuckle ball.
This is my second season pitching to Nicole Saari and I’ve come to realize how well we work together. She knows the batters really well, calls a great game, and has amazing talent. It’s reassuring to be able to trust your catcher, in the signs she calls, the strikes she gets for you, and in the fact that she will stop anything that you throw at her.
Q—What are the things that Coach Patti Gerckens and her staff stress the most to the pitching staff?
WARD—We focus a lot on the mental aspect of the game. We look at charts, statistics, and past games for every team we play so that we have a game plan. Also, we talk a lot about working the count and making batters hit the pitches we want them to hit.
Q—What has been the most exciting moment of your collegiate softball career? What has been your best experience at UCSD outside of softball?
WARD—So far, my most exciting softball experience has been pitching at NCAA Regionals last season.
I would have to say that outside of softball, I’m just generally really enjoying my senior year. It’s great to be going to school with my boyfriend, and this year my little brother joined us at UCSD. He’s a thrower for the track team so it’s great to see him around campus sporting his Triton gear.
Q—Does softball fit into your plans following your senior season?
WARD—If any opportunities arise, we’ll have to see. At the least, I’ll be doing some coaching or running pitching lessons.
Q—You’re a Human Development major at UCSD. What do you hope to do with your degree?
WARD—I’m hoping to stay in San Diego another year to earn my teaching credential so that I can be an elementary school teacher. I’m just waiting around for an acceptance letter, so we’ll see.
Q—What would make your softball career at UCSD complete?
WARD—A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!