One Peach of a Pitcher: Peaches James Leaves Enduring Legacy in the Circle as a Nebraska Softball Legend
I earlier posted a 2004 story about black women athletes of distinction in Nebraska, and that reminded me of another story I did that year on Peaches James, a hard-throwing softball pitcher whose dominance in the circle helped establish a dynasty at Papillion-La Vista High School and helped lead the University of Nebraska softball program to great success, though short of its ultimate goal of winning the women’s College World Series. James was a good to very good college pitcher her first three years in Lincoln but elevated her game her senior season to become nothing short of great as she earned all sorts of team, conference, and national accolades. My story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) just as her collegiate career came to an end and just as she looked forward to playing professionally. Her pro career didn’t amount to much, but today she’s a fastpitch instructor with an elite sports academy in Illinois.
NOTE: While this story was not officially a part of my extensive 2004-2005 series on Omaha black sports legends, Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness, it appeared just before the start of that series, and so I count it in the mix. You can find most of the installments in that series on this blog, and I’ll soon be adding the remaining installments.
One Peach of a Pitcher: Peaches James Leaves Enduring Legacy in the Circle as a Nebraska Softball Legend
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Nebraska softball pitching whiz Peaches James is the epitome of cool on the diamond between her tight braids, sleek shades, silver bling-bling adorned ears and silky smooth delivery of blazing rise balls. She strides the circle with the calm confidence you expect from the ace of the staff. Intense, yet loose, and in complete command out there.
The record-setting James is among the latest African-American athletes from Omaha who’ve made an enduring contribution to the area’s fat sports heritage. But she’s done it in a sport that, at the collegiate level, has had traditionally few black faces.
It’s no coincidence the Top 15 Lady Huskers enjoyed their finest season in a long time in what was their ace’s best year. NU wrapped up the regular season Big 12 title with a pair of one-run wins pitched by James over Texas A & M in early May. Two weekends ago, she got on a roll in the Big 12 tourney. She pitched a 2-1 complete game victory over Texas that saw her strike out 13 Longhorns and then topped that with a perfect game 7-0 win over Oklahoma. On May 15, she was in the circle for a 10-1 win over Baylor and later that same day she threw a 1-0 shutout, with 16 strikeouts, against Missouri to clinch the Huskers’ tourney title. With her four-game performance, she added conference tourney MVP to her Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honors. Then, she led her Huskers to the NCAA Region 5 championship round, posting a 6-0, 12-strikeout win over Leigh and bracketing two wins over Creighton amid a 2-0 loss to top-seed California. NU was eliminated Sunday with another 2-0 loss to the Bears — falling two wins short of the College World Series.
Even with her NU career ended, Peaches has already secured more softball in her future. Last December, she was a second round pick in the inaugural senior draft of the newly formed National Pro Fastpitch league, the latest attempt to market women’s softball. Selected by the Houston Thunder, now known as the Texas Thunder, James will be competing this summer with a who’s-who roster of former college and Olympic stars. NCAA rules prohibited her from negotiating and signing a contract until the season ended. Now that it has, she’s eager to get started. “I’m really excited,” she said. “It will be great competition.”
Then there’s a possible try for the 2008 USA Olympic team. Just like the pros, making the Olympic squad would require taking her game to “a whole different level,” she said. “When you have pitchers like Lisa Fernandez and Jenny Finch, they’re your top, elite athletes. To compete at that level you’ve got to be at the top of your game every game.” Can she? “I’d like to think so.” Cool. Peachy keen.
History repeated itself with James. She was a solid, at times smothering, starting pitcher her first two years of prep ball before going off into the stratosphere her senior season, when she shut down and almost always shut out her foes. Similarly, for NU, she established herself as an outstanding performer her freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, pitching well enough to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors all three years and first-team All-Midwest Region as a junior. Entering the 2004 season, she’d already been on the national Softball Player of the Year watch list and an invitee to the Olympic training center and she ranked among NU’s all-time leaders in wins, shutouts, strikeouts and innings pitched.
But, just like she did before, she ratcheted her game up another notch or two for her swan song, lowering her ERA by nearly half her career average, to 0.70, throwing her second collegiate no-hitter and setting NU single season records for most shutouts (18) and strikeouts (more than 300). Her 37 wins (versus 9 losses) are among the program’s best single season totals. She’s also first in career strikeouts (with more than 900) and second in career wins (98).
“I do see a lot of mirroring from her high school career,” Revelle said. “It seemed like every year in high school she made strides and then she made a leap her senior year. And I feel the same thing in this senior year for her. She’s had a great career for us but this is definitely her signature season.”
James explains her senior success this time around to having been there before. “I think what’s helped me is the experience I’ve gained from my freshman year in college to my senior year now. It’s about building confidence. It’s getting comfortable being out there and playing with your teammates. It’s building trust. It’s all those mental things that make you a better player.”
She first started developing a name for herself at Papillion-La Vista High School, whose dynasty of a softball program she helped maintain. Her prep career came in the middle of the school’s record nine straight state championships, a run of excellence unequaled in Nebraska prep history. But what James did her senior season elevated her and her team’s dominance to new heights. Almost literally unhittable the entire 1999-2000 campaign, she posted a remarkable 0.04 earned run average. In the space of that same season, she pitched 11 no-hitters, including five perfect games. It was the culmination of an unparalled two-year run in which she set about a dozen state records, including marks for most consecutive: wins (31); shut-outs (19); shut-out innings (162 1/3) and no earned runs allowed (257 2/3).
Her brilliance is all the more remarkable given that only six years earlier Mike Govig, her future prep coach, saw her at an indoor clinic where her wild throws soared up to the ceiling while her mother patiently sat on a bucket waiting, in vain, to catch one of those errant tosses. “I did not get it (pitching) right away. Balls would be flying everywhere,” James said. Govig recalls thinking the girl was hopeless.
What he didn’t know then was the size of her heart and strength of her will. With a lot of hard work, James made herself a pitcher the Monarchs rode to titles her sophomore year on. Her progress into a consummate hurler was so advanced that at a summer Topeka, Kansas tournament prior to her senior year she threw seven games in one day, winning six, en route to capping team title-tourney MVP honors.
“The title game got over at two o’clock in the morning, and her last inning was probably her strongest inning of the whole day,” Govig said. “You talk about a workhorse. The legend grew.”
Her dominance and endurance carried through her senior season. As her reputation grew, Govig said frustrated batters often got themselves out. “People were not able to step in the box with a whole lot of confidence. Half the battle was already won. They’d already lost…You could see it their body language.”
James also blossomed into a fine athlete. She competed in volleyball and track. On the diamond, she displayed versatility by playing second base her freshman year and posing the Monarchs best base stealing threat all four years. Govig rates her as one of the best athletes he’s ever coached, while NU head softball coach Rhonda Revelle flat out says, “I’ve not coached a better all-around athlete in this program. She’s physically powerful. She has so many tools.” James holds the best all-sport vertical jump in NU women’s athletics history at 30.5 inches.
The coaches say there’s never been another home-grown softball pitcher who’s carried her dominance from high school into college as James has. “She definitely stands alone,” Govig said. “She’s set the bar very high.”
The work ethic it took to come so far, so quickly, was instilled in James by her parents and coaches, whose preachings about the importance of practice she faithfully followed. “As I got older I had enough discipline to go pitch on my own or go work out on my own,” she said. “It’s like I wanted to do it on my own because I wanted to get better and I wanted to get good.”
Govig, who’s followed James career at NU, said the right-hander has it all. “Some pitchers might just be dominant with a rise ball, but she can throw a drop, a curve, a rise, a change. She can get you out in a bunch of different ways. Her ball movement is very extraordinary.”
Embracing the role of every day starter didn’t come easily for the placid James, whose magnanimous personality made it hard for her to stand out. “It was hard for me at first when we’d play and then I’d find out I was pitching again the next day and the other pitchers were not getting the ball, because I am the type of person that wants everybody to succeed,” she said. Her survival-of-the-fittest showing in Topeka went a long way towards changing her attitude. “Before that I would never have thought I’d be able to pitch and win that many games in one day,” she said. “I guess when you’re put in that situation and you’re put to the test, you really find out what you’re made of and you find out what you can and what you can’t do. It defines who you are and if you’re going to be tough enough to step up to a challenge and succeed at it. I got to where if my coaches said, ‘You’re pitching today,’ then I got in that mindset and that’s the only thing I could worry about if I was going to do my best for the team.”
Despite a solid start to her college career — when she posted 16-7, 22-9 and 23-13 records her first three years — James lacked the fire top pitchers need. “I was like a nice competitor, you know. I would compete, but I wasn’t like gritting my teeth in a I-will-not-lose kind of way. My teammates would always say I was too nice out there. You can be nice off the field, but when you’re on the field that’s the time you need to compete fiercely. And I think I’ve grown more into that to where I’m like: For me to lose, you’re going to have to beat me…I’m not going to beat myself and I’m not going to give into you…you’re going to have to be better than me. Yeah, I think that’s more the demeanor I do have now, and it’s really helped.”
Coach Revelle noticed. “I’ve used the term warrior for Peaches this year,” she said, “as I really think she’s taken on a warrior’s mentality, where she’s virtually unfazed by what goes on around he and just sticks to her game plan.” That nonplussed attitude extended to those times racial slurs were directed her way and to the strange looks she got as one of college softball’s few black pitchers.
Her strong, poised presence in the circle sent a clear message. “Ever since I’ve been a pitcher I’ve known you have to set the tone out there and have that presence,” she said. “You’re like an automatic leader being a pitcher. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more into being a leader out there. I have to set the tone for the rest of my teammates because how I act and how I respond and how I am on the mound is how they’re going to act and respond.”
She also formed a tight relationship with her regular battery mate, catcher Brittney Yolo. “My catcher and our coaches have talked a lot about going two against one. That it’s not just me out there going against the batter, it’s me and my catcher going against that batter. And that, mentally, has helped a lot because I don’t feel like I have to do it myself. I have someone back there that’s going to help me. Especially with her behind the plate, I feel like I do own the batter and I do own part of that batter’s box, and they’re going to have to beat both of us.”
If the Huskers were to go all the way, James would have been the horse her team rode. Prior to the regional, she felt fully capable of carrying the load. “Oh, definitely. I will not be satisfied until the season’s over and we’ve been to the tournament,” she said. “We haven’t been there since my sophomore year, so that’s definitely a goal of mine, and the only way to get there is to keep working and to keep getting better. I can’t be content with anything.” Her coach, too, envisioned Peaches bringing the team all the way home. “She’s been a thoroughbred for us, and we can ride her until the last out of the College World Series, if we make it that far. I think she’s strong enough mentally and physically to endure that,” Revelle said before the start of the regional.
After coming up short, James simply said, “It’s hard.” Although not hit hard by California in the regional losses that ended NU’s season, James, who threw nearly 40 innings in two days, said, “I think physically I wasn’t at my sharpest but…I was giving whatever I had.” Revelle said it’s that kind of gutsy effort that made working with James “a tremendous ride for this coach,” adding: “I’ve never had a pitcher trust me so much. She is a tremendous athlete in her own right, but when you can trust the pitches that are being called and work together like that…Well, if I never have that again, I know I’ve had it once.”
This Peach of a Pitcher is finished at NU, but her legend will long live on there.
- In twist of fate, Texas pitcher ties softball’s second-best single game homer mark (sports.yahoo.com)
- USA Softball Says Goodbye To a Legend: Jennie Finch to Retire in August (bleacherreport.com)