By any standard, Michaela Ward had a big year in the pitching circle last spring.
The Rock Falls junior tossed 99 innings in 2013, compiling an 11-3 record and a 1.76 earned run average. She struck out 97 batters and walked just 14.
Her main weapons are a wicked riseball and confounding curve that keeps hitters off-balance. The quality of those pitches, according to Rockets head coach Kris Nunez, are what sets Ward apart.
"She has pitches in her repertoire pitchers wish they had, but don't," Nunez said. "I'm a believer. I've seen it, and her ball moves. She's just this little thing, but man, she's got a great arm."
Ward came up to the varsity early in her freshman year, due to an injury to current teammate Julie Dodd. Just in case opponents are getting used to her pitches, Ward spent the offseason adding another pitch, a dropball.
She tinkered with it a year ago, but didn't have the confidence to use it in a game. This season, however, she plans to break it out more and more as the season goes on.
"Hopefully I'll throw it once or twice here or there in a game," Ward said, "and then by the end of the season, I'll feel more comfortable throwing it more often."
Guiding Ward in her pitching endeavors is Becki Edmondson, who is entering her first year as the varsity coach at Sterling. Ward credits Edmondson for her pitching prowess.
"I've seen videos of her pitching," Ward said, "and she's a great pitcher. I feel like me and her have a close bond, so that when she teaches me, I really want to listen to her and learn from her."
The fun and games stop, however, once the Rockets and Golden Warriors cross the lines. They played twice a year ago, with the the Warriors winning both games. Ward did not pitch in the first meeting, but did in the rematch in the regional that Sterling won 2-0.
"It's nervewracking," Ward said, "because [Edmondson] wants me to do well, but she wants her team to do well. She knows how I throw, so it's kind of like a mind game."
When not pitching, Ward plays shortstop, and she's also a key part of the offense. She batted .391 (36-for-92) with five doubles, two triples, a home run and 32 runs batted in in 2013. The RBI total was second on the team to the 46 posted by Jordan Giddings, who graduated.
Nunez plans to bat Ward anywhere from third to sixth in the lineup.
"You look at her and you'd think she's going to be a one or a two, just because of her speed and size," Nunez said, "but she's not. When she hits that ball, she hits it with some force. She's a run producer."
School: Rock Falls
FYI: Starting pitcher for Rockets since early in her freshman year. ... Went 11-3 as a sophomore, with 1.76 ERA. ... Also batted .391 with 28 RBIs.