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Softball: UL’s Wallace learns on long comeback trail – if called upon, hopes to recapture magic

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, May 14, 2014

TDA ul jordan wallace 0514 

UL’s Jordan Wallace, middle, enjoys a fun moment with teammates Corin Voinche and Lexie Elkins during a win over Michigan earlier this season. (Photo: Leslie Westbrook, The Advertiser )

She tries to focus solely on the huge task at hand – both hers and the one facing the No. 6 overall national seed UL Ragin’ Cajuns.

But every once in a while, UL junior pitcher Jordan Wallace thinks about it.

Someone may bring it up in conversation or she glances at an old photo or sometimes you just need to think of a good memory from the past to get you through a rough day.

It was about this time last year that Wallace was on fire. She put the Cajuns’ softball team on her back, throwing three straight shutouts in the NCAA Regional in Baton Rouge with a one-hitter against Northwestern State, followed by a 2-hitter and a 4-hitter in sweeping LSU.

Then in the Super Regional in Michigan, Wallace again pitched all three games, including a 3-hit shutout in the middle game and losing 2-1 in the rubber match.

Cajun softball fans everywhere will remember Wallace’s triumphant pose after securing the third out of the NCAA Regional win over LSU.

"I loved that moment," Wallace smiled. "That was the best moment of my softball career."

Then Wallace paused and said, "but you can relive that moment."

Indeed, Wallace was on top of the college pitching world during that memorable stretch last May.

Getting back there, however, has been much more difficult than anyone ever imagined.

There was a giant assumption made by so many that Wallace would just roll out of bed for his junior season and pick up where she left off.

After all, the Weatherford, Texas native was 27-2 as a freshman with a 2.26 ERA, allowing just 127 hits in 186 innings with 167 strikeouts.

Then she turned downright dominant as a sophomore, overcoming a rough midseason transition to finish 32-9 with a 1.70 ERA, giving up just 151 hits and striking out 382 in 255.1 innings.

As the Cajuns prepare for this weekend’s NCAA Regional in Lafayette, though, it would be an understatement to say that Wallace’s junior season hasn’t gone as planned.

The right-hander still isn’t giving up many hits (just 79 in 102 innings) and is still striking out a lot of batters (136 in those 102 innings), but the ERA stands at 3.91 after spending some time above 5.00 earlier this season.

"It’s been a very humbling year for me," Wallace said.

"It’s been a great learning year for me. I’ve learned a lot about my teammates and I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s a great team sport."

What Wallace isn’t entirely sure of is exactly what went wrong. How does a pitcher who was so dominant suddenly struggle to finish games?

Was it a confidence issue? Were there health concerns? Were there mechanical issues?

"I think it was a combination of everything," she said.

The search for an answer began back in the fall when Wallace suffered a concussion.

"I don’t think she realized the effects the concussion would have on her pitching mechanics," UL coach Michael Lotief said.

Then in the first weekend of the season, Wallace suffered a lower back injury.

"We sat her out, but she came back even though she wasn’t 100 percent," Lotief said. "We probably rushed her a little bit.

"Then that first outing back wasn’t a good one. Now doubts start to creep in a little bit."

And mixed in the middle of those physical, and eventual mechanical issues, was Wallace not ever really getting rid of that mindset that she had to carry the entire team on her back.

"It’s not the pressure of pitching," Wallace said. "I like the pressure of pitching. I like the pressure of pitching in Regionals and Super Regionals. It’s completely different than conference play.

"It was trying to meet up with other people’s expectations."

Or as Lotief explained, "her perception of the outside expectations of her."

In this case, that perception was perhaps reality in Wallace’s mind, but not really for everyone else on the team.

"I think now she understands that her perception wasn’t entirely accurate," Lotief said. "I think she realizes now that no one (on team) was expecting her to do it all by herself. I think that’s the real strength of this year’s team. Collectively, this team is very strong."

Consequently, if Wallace does get an opportunity this weekend to pitch under the NCAA Regional spotlight that she so cherishes and shined so brightly in a year ago, she plans to have a very different approach.

"My approach is going to be different," said Wallace, who said she began to feel more confident after two outings in the UL Monroe series to finish out the regular season. "I’m going to give it to my defense. I’m going to let them work behind me. In the past, I had a strikeout mentality, but that’s more of an immature approach to have."

Wallace said she’s not overly concerned about the walks.

"I’ve never been a pinpoint control pitcher," she said. "Even in my freshman year, I just threw it down the middle and spun it."

And truthfully, Wallace did walk 98 batters during her fabulous sophomore season, hit 33 others and hurled 20 wild pitches. So far this season, she’s walked 107, hit 26 and thrown 33 wild pitches. And even as a freshman, she walked 61 batters, before learning her new unhittable pitch that carried her through that May stretch last spring.

Regardless of how and why her junior season has produced such disappointing statistics, Wallace is very grateful for how the fans and her teammates have responded.

Unlike some may expect, Wallace said she hasn’t been bombarded with questions of why or how she’s struggled this season.

"The fan support has been great," she said. "They’ve never stopped believing in me and encouraging me."

Perhaps no relationship has grown more during this peculiar junior season than the one between Wallace and new ace right-hander Christina Hamilton.

While Wallace was the star the last two seasons, Hamilton was in the background, spending one year recovering from a knee injury and the next one pitching limited innings behind Wallace.

But as Wallace took her turn searching for answers, Hamilton amazingly found herself just in time.

And while Hamilton has a different style in the circle – more control with fewer strikeouts – she’s taken over the role as the ace pitcher and done so effectively enough for UL to be standing at 44-8-1 after a 19-1 Sun Belt campaign.

"I’m so proud of Christina," Wallace said. "She’s changed a lot. She’s had a different mindset this year. She’s really helped me a lot, keeping me into it. She’s super selfless right now and it’s helped her tremendously.

"We talk a lot, not so much about playing time, but just keeping each other in check. She’s just been very supportive of me."

In fact, in Wallace’s mind, Hamilton’s support has gone above and beyond what she ever could have expected.

Throughout the season, Hamilton would tell Wallace that she was going to get the start "even though it wasn’t true" just to keep the former ace encouraged.

Then after Hamilton was honored with the Sun Belt Pitcher of the Year Award just prior to the conference tournament last week, she did something that still touches Wallace every time she ponders the kind gesture.

Hamilton, who now stands at 24-2 with a 1.55 ERA, put that Pitcher of the Year trophy in Wallace’s locker with a note that she was the true Pitcher of the Year.

"She’s going to kill me for saying this," said a choked-up Wallace, "but that was the best thing that anyone has done.

"That meant a lot to me."

Wallace also said that the relationship with Lotief remains good.

"He believes in me," Wallace said. "We’ve tried everything, literally, we’ve tried everything."

Everything they could think of for Wallace to bring that May NCAA Regional magic back.