When things looked bleak for the Newman Catholic softball team back in early June, junior Paige Leininger stepped in and saved its season.
At the beginning of the year, the Knights were relying on a young pitching staff, comprised of eighth-graders and freshmen. For the first few weeks, it seemed to be working. But then the walks started coming. In one game against Central Springs, the Knights issued nine bases on balls.
That is when the Knight’s All-State second baseman told her coach she thought she could do the job. After a few practices and a couple of warm-up JV games, Knights coach Tom Dunn put her out there.
“We have a bunch of young pitchers, and we thought they were going to get the job done, and they did for the first week,” Dunn said. “Then they started walking people. Paige played a lot of travel ball, and was a pitcher years ago. So she said “Coach, I think I can throw strikes.”
Leininger had not pitched since she played JJV in eighth grade, and quit pitching after she took over as the varsity second baseman. But with the team issuing free passes at an alarming rate, she said that she felt a responsibility to try to make the team better.
“It’s been pretty hard, but I think it has really changed the demeanor of the team,” Leininger said. “I thought it was my responsibility as a junior, starting all four years. This was my chance to kind of save the team for us. I didn’t know how it was going to end, and I said “If I do bad, pull me out, and don’t let me embarrass myself.”
Leininger asked around first, seeing if others thought it would be a good idea.
“My dad is a coach, and I went “Dad, should I try it?”, and he said, 'We’ll take anything we can get right now'. I told the coaches. The next day at practice, I threw 60 pitches, and it wasn’t too bad.”
Thus far, she has done anything but embarrass herself. In her first start, she allowed just three hits against Rockford. Now, close to a month later, her record stands at 14-3.
The team has had to undergo several changes since making the switch. Senior catcher Macy Alexander was injured earlier in the season, and starting third baseman Haley Worman took over behind the plate.
With two of their strongest defensive infielders now acting as the starting battery, Dunn has had to try new things.
“Unfortunately for us, when Macy broke her bone in her wrist, that forced us to make changes all over, and some of those changes have worked out well, and some have not,” Dunn said.
As of now though, he and the rest of the team feels confident with their rediscovered pitcher on the hill.
“Overall, I think that just me being on the mound, having experience on the diamond has helped our team so much,” Leininger said. “We as a team feel way more confident, and it just helps the morale of the team.”
When Leininger became the ace, the team was in the midst of a seven-game losing skid. Soon after she took over, the Knights reeled off an 11-game winning streak, which turned the team’s season around and boosted their confidence as the postseason quickly approaches.
“That winning streak made a huge difference,” Leininger said. “We felt confident, we know how to play softball. We can do this.”
Since leaving second base and finding success on the mound, the junior has discovered that she enjoys the feeling of being in charge on the diamond.
“I kind of like controlling the game,” Leininger said “Being a pitcher, instead of getting mad at someone else for not making plays, it’s my job to throw strikes and make plays on the mound. I have no one else to blame but myself.”
As for next year, Leininger is open to wherever Dunn thinks she will be most valuable, whether on the mound, or back at second base.
“I do miss my home at second base,” Leininger said. “Wherever they put me, I’ll be good. If someone is ready to step up to the pitching spot, I’ll give it away and play second. If they don’t, I’m fine pitching.”
At the beginning of the season, Leininger made some goals for her junior season. She never expected that that would involve pitching again.
“Absolutely not,” Leininger said. “I thought that was way past. Now we’ve got other goals, and that is to make the state tournament. If that is what it takes, I’m here."