UK pitcher Stephanie Schoonover knows Alabama is a softball state

Published 3:52 pm Monday, March 13, 2023

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You might not think of Alabama as a softball state, but Kentucky junior pitcher Stephanie Schoonover says it is for many.

“The high school I graduated from, for us, the main sport was softball. Our softball and baseball were the best sports there,” said Schoonover. “Softball was a main priority for a lot of people in southern Alabama. Birmingham has a lot of travel teams and hosts a lot of games. I played for two AAU teams that were very well known. Softball was really big for female athletes in Alabama.”

Her teams finished in the top four of the Alabama state high school championships yearly, with state runner-up finishes in 2016 and 2019.

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That didn’t stop Schoonover from trying other sports. She tried gymnastics, volleyball, basketball and soccer. She even rode horses.

“I played basketball until my freshman year and volleyball until my junior year,” the UK pitcher said. “I still have a horse but do not ride as much. If not for softball, I probably would have been a competitive rider. But once I signed to play softball, that’s all I wanted to focus on.”

That focus has paid off in a big way this season for Schoonover. She was named D1 Softball National Pitcher of the Week earlier this season when she pitched 16 2/3 innings in three games with two complete game shutouts, including a no-hitter with a school record 18 strikeouts and a save.

“That award was so awesome. I didn’t see it. My parents and teammates brought it up to me. It didn’t even register at first what I had done and what an amazing award that was. It was just crazy,” Schoonover, who threw two no-hitters in 2022, said.

Coach Rachel Lawson was counting on Schoonover to take a lead role this season, and she has certainly done that. In 16 appearances, she had a 1.31 ERA and 10-1 record, with the only loss coming at No. 1 Oklahoma. She had 10 complete games in 12 starts and one save. In 80 1/3 innings, she allowed 47 hits and struck out 124.

In her freshman year, she appeared in only nine games. Last season she had 17 starts in her 23 appearances and went 7-5 with a 5.15 ERA and 68 strikeouts and 51 walks in 69 innings. This season she has allowed only 22 walks in 71 innings.

“I am a very competitive person and my freshman year it was very difficult not being out there more. But I had Autumn Humes and Grace Baalman ahead of me. I had to pay my dues and understood that. I wanted to play but understood I needed to mature as an athlete and student,” Schoonover said.

“Last year I did a lot more and improved,” Schoonover said. “This past summer I had more time to work on all the details. During Christmas break I did even more. I didn’t expect some of the numbers I’ve had but I did expect to be better.”

She was the 2019 5A Pitcher of the Year in Alabama but also hit .370 with 15 home runs and drove in 56 runs her senior season. Lawson considered using her as an outfielder her freshman year because of her speed, but Schoonover is fine with pitching and not hitting.

“I love playing outfield and diving for balls. Now my love for hitting is not what it should be to hit at a school like Kentucky. I just wanted to be the best pitcher I could be,” she said. “I got recruited to pitch. It doesn’t bother me not to hit. I have always wanted to be a pitcher. That has been my goal since I was a toddler waddling around holding a ball, so not hitting in college does not bother me at all.”

Lawson is also fine with her “just” pitching since she has become UK’s ace. She opened Southeastern Conference play with a 5-0 shutout victory at Missouri when she struck out 15. She had seven strikeouts in a 6-0 complete game victory in the third game of the series and had three strikeouts in 1 2/3 innings to finish the game,

Lawson had her focus more on her “breaking point” with pitches going into the season and it has paid off in a big way.

“Last year, I danced around batters trying to get them to chase my pitch. This year I just throw strikes,” Schoonover, who eventually hopes to be a physical therapist, said. “I understand my body better and how just one little move can change the result of the whole pitch.

“My velocity is up this year. Last year it was around the mid-60’s (miles per hour) and now it is the mid to upper 60s. I have gotten stronger, and gained good weight. I focus on my eating and recovery more. I ran a lot over summer and winter break. I ride a bike for recovery and all that has helped my speed.”

Schoonover’s impressive start and presence on the national stage have caused her to put more pressure on herself because she wants to be the No. 1 pitcher for the Cats.

“I am a softball player. I know you are not going to have a shutout game every time. Batters at this level are amazing. They are national hitters of the week,” the Kentucky junior pitcher said.

“Confidence trumps the pressure. Just knowing I can do it helps. I want to push to be that pitcher for the rest of the season for my team to help us reach the goals we have set for ourselves.”