Better Know a Pitcher of the Year: Big South’s Isabella SmithTop Stories
As part of a recurring series, D1Softball.com is taking a closer look at some of the returning players who earned conference pitcher or player of the year awards in 2023. This installment visits Campbell redshirt junior Isabella Smith, the reigning Big South Pitcher of the Year.
By contemporary softball standards, Isabella Smith had already put in a solid day’s work by the time she jogged to the circle for her first start of the 2023 season.
Campbell opened last season with games against East Tennessee State and Charlotte. Smith was slated to start the marquee second game against the host 49ers. But when the Camels rallied from an early deficit against ETSU and had a chance to start the campaign on the right foot, softball strategy from time immemorial said to get Smith in the game. She duly pitched three shutout innings in relief and gave her lineup time to find the winning runs.
No big deal. She would hardly be the first pitcher to warm up for a start with a few innings of relief work in an earlier game. It certainly didn’t seem to affect her in the nightcap. She allowed a third-inning run against Charlotte, but that was it. Nothing more crossed the plate through the fifth, sixth or seventh. Or the eighth. Or the ninth. Or the 10th and 11th. And after her team scored five runs in the top of the 12th, she went back out to the circle for the bottom of the inning. Only a pair of first-pitch outs in the final frame saved her from crossing the 200-pitch threshold in the game.
“I remember doing the postgame interview and all I could talk about was going home, getting food, doing treatment and going to sleep,” Smith said. “And that’s exactly what I did.”
When she woke up the next day, part of her thought she must have dreamed the whole thing. Her legs quickly let her know the memory was real. But when she got to the field for two more games, including one against South Carolina, and coaches asked how she felt, she told them to give her innings. She didn’t get rocked, but everyone from the coaches to her dad noticed her legs were of only marginally more help than someone stepping onto dry land after a long cruise.
Fortunately, the fatigue didn’t last beyond the day. Smith went 29-12 with a 2.06 ERA and 1.01 WHIP as Campbell won the Big South, becoming the first pitcher in program history to reach 200 strikeouts in a season. She influenced her games as much as almost any player in the nation influenced games. She ranked 21st in the nation in WAR, just behind Taryn Kern and Eric Coffel. She ranked 13th in the nation in chase percentage—how often a pitcher get hitters to chase pitches out of the strike zone. On that score, she checked in right behind Kelly Maxwell and Montana Fouts.
So, what keeps a person going pitch after pitch, inning after inning? How is it that someone can step out of the preseason and throw a postseason-like 15 innings and more than 200 pitches?
It might be that Smith knows better than most that the first pitch is sometimes the toughest. And if you get through that, you never want to stop.
One year earlier, not very long after questioning whether she even wanted to play softball anymore, Smith also stood in the circle on an opening day. It wasn’t just her first start of the 2022 season, it was the transfer’s first start for her new school, alma mater of the biological father she never got the chance to know.
Usually as calm as a country pond in the circle, waves of nervousness and anxiety washed over her. And it didn’t go particularly well.
But the next day? The next day she threw a no-hitter. She hasn’t looked back.
“Knowing the hell that I had went through my freshman year, even with my injury and things like that, it really made me feel like God placed me where I needed to be,” Smith said of the no-hitter against Jacksonville in her second collegiate start on Feb. 12, 2022. “And in that moment I was like, ‘OK, God has me.’ He put me exactly where I needed to be and all was good.”
Loving the game
Smith has had a more or less lifelong love affair with softball. The complication was that at least early in the relationship, she wasn’t sure the game was all that fond of her.
Smith grew up around softball. Her mom played in high school. Older cousins continued the family tradition, attending their tournaments part of the normal routine of Smith’s childhood. An uncle eventually asked her if she wanted to try pitching, too, and by around the age of 12, she was regularly playing in organized leagues. But a natural? A pitching phenom destined to rank with the best in the NCAA? At least by her telling, that isn’t quite how the story goes.
“I was definitely one of the worst on the team,” Smith said. “If you find—which I pray they never surface on the internet—pictures of me from when I was around that age, I was chubby. I did not look athletic at all. It looked like I didn’t know what I was doing. It looked like I did not belong.”
Indeed, she once went to a pitching clinic put on by Denny Tincher, father of Virginia Tech legend and all-time softball great Angela Tincher. After she was picked for a demonstration, Tincher used her motion to highlight common flaws (it hardly soured the connection—she begged her dad to drive her several hours each way for more lessons with him, and the two continue to work together years later).
Survey enough elite athletes and you’re likely to find that more than a few fell in love with success before they fell in love with their sport. They enjoyed the initial rush of being really good at something—and over time grew passionate about the thing itself. In Smith’s case, it has always been softball. Sure, the familial ties that lent the sport a sense of community helped pull her in. The camaraderie of teams always matters. But she is, in the purest and best sense of the sobriquet, a softball nerd. And in particular, a pitching aficionado.
“I had softball on at our house 24-7,” Smith said. “Pitchers just fascinate me in general. It blows my mind what our bodies can do. It’s jaw dropping to me, the way that we can make balls move and pitches break and the way that our bodies can move. And to throw a 12-inning game like I did at Charlotte, the fact that our bodies can do that is just fascinating to me.
“I mean, even in the offseason, I’ll pull up games on YouTube when I’m bored and I’ll just watch and try to learn anything that I can from past pitchers or pitchers now.”
Losing her way
As one might expect, that left her feeling as if she was living out a dream in Oklahoma City in 2021. Although she redshirted her freshman year at James Madison, everyone on the roster traveled with the team throughout the postseason—from the Knoxville Regional to the Columbia Super Regional and through one of the most memorable World Series ever played. Everywhere she looked in Hall of Fame Stadium, it seemed to her, she saw another legend. Even looking at Patty Gasso in the opposing dugout seemed surreal. It was a softball nerd’s dream come true, with stories any kids she has in the future will grow accustomed to hearing over and over.
Unfortunately, it came in the midst of a nightmare year. Just as the season was about to get underway, she was diagnosed with what she described as a stress fracture in her plant leg. Recovery was slow going—around midseason she was out of her protective boot and on the verge of resuming activity when a recurrence moved her back to square one. And while she’s reluctant to delve into the details, preferring to let the past remain there, it wasn’t just the injury. It wasn’t the right place for her to thrive. She lost confidence and her joy for the game.
“I got to the point when I was at JMU when I just wanted to quit, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Maybe softball isn’t for me.’ I was just going to quit.”
A travel ball coach convinced her to give the sport a second chance. After entering the portal, she, in turn, reached out to then-Campbell coach Sharonda McDonald-Kelley to see if the school less than an hour south from home in Raleigh, N.C., would give her a second chance after recruiting her out of high school. McDonald-Kelley assured her that door had never closed.
For Smith, it wasn’t just going home. She calls her parents, Mark Smith and Samantha Newton, as her biggest fans and supporters throughout her softball journey, Mark part of her life almost since she first picked up a ball. But she never knew her biological father, who passed away before she was born. That his alma mater felt like her port in a storm didn’t seem like a coincidence.
“I didn’t get to meet him or have a connection with him,” Smith said. “But I think God bringing me back to Campbell was a sign from him of like, ‘I’m still here with you.’ It’s just an honor to be able to play at the university he attended.”
Never looking back
She was nervous when she took the ball for that 2022 opener, her first competitive start in essentially two years. But throughout that first fall and winter at Campbell, she and the coaches had worked together—less on pitching mechanics than reestablishing her sense of worth and value, to herself and to the team around her. Even after McDonald-Kelley moved on to Michigan State after Smith’s first season, new head coach Trena Prater, pitching coach Erin Arevalo and assistants Nerissa Myers and Megan Hill made her eager to come to the field each day.
“They genuinely helped me so much with falling back in love with the sport—more than I ever imagined,” Smith said of McDonald-Kelley and her staff. “And now, Coach Prater, Coach Arevalo, Coach Hill and Coach Myers, they have just amplified that. It is insane. I thought I love the sport when I was younger, but now it feels like an out of body experience to be able to play the sport that I love.”
So, yes, when you understand how the Big South Pitcher of the Year got to her first pitch as a collegian back in 2022, you begin to understand why she’s in no hurry to leave the circle these days.
Inside the numbers
- Smith very much has an old school ace’s bravado when it comes to pitch selection and the battle of wills between pitcher and batter.
“If I can spin the heck out of this thing, even if you know it’s coming, you still have to touch it. You still have it to hit it,” Smith said. “So that’s that’s definitely a game I like to play with them, for sure.”
But she’s also putting a lot of thought and bullpen work into how to keep them chasing. Working with Arevalo, she complemented her rise with a drop far more often last season—Synergy data shows a threefold increase in utilizing her drop ball in 2023. That gave her a second pitch that hitters chased out of the zone close to 50 percent of the time (more than 50 percent of the time for her rise in each of the past two seasons).
“Having that background of a fastball that does have some natural drop to it, I just had to tweak some things and then the drop was there,” Smith said. “I won’t say it was an overnight fix, for sure, because it definitely was not. But knowing the hard work that I had put into the drop ball, and that it was going well and bullpens and throwing and live, I trusted it. I knew it was going to do what it needed to do.”
- Nor is it just the spin that makes hitters bite, impressive as hers is. Smith baits hitters into chasing as well as almost anyone. While rise and drops often end up out of the strike zone, Smith ranked 22nd nationally in the percentage of total pitches thrown for strikes, sandwiched between Peyton Gottshall and Fouts. And she ranked just outside the top 50 in percentage of first-pitch strikes.