PITTSBURGH, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Mackenzie Dunn last pitched in 2020, just before COVID shut down the high school softball season.
(Photo courtesy of Chatham University)
The 2020 Karns City graduate figured her pitching days were long over when she moved on to Chatham University to play softball. Crouching behind the plate was her thing. Mashing the ball in the batter’s box was her calling card.
Certainly not stepping into the circle again.
But circumstances this year at Chatham thrust Dunn back into the role of pitcher.
“We lost two pitchers who graduated at the end of my freshman season,” said Dunn, who just completed her sophomore campaign at Chatham. “COVID made recruiting difficult, and we didn’t get any pitchers recruited. The one freshman pitcher we had ended up transferring out. I kind of had to step up into the role. I needed to pitch.”
Dunn did her best. She took a crash course in pitching to shake off the rust and ended up throwing 78 innings for the Cougars, second on the team behind senior Emily Nay.
“It was like a pitching bootcamp to get ready,” Dunn said.
It was still a struggle at times for Dunn, who was 4-8 with an 8.19 ERA.
Chatham’s team ERA was 9.10.
“It was a very stressful position for me in the sense I was playing a position that wasn’t my best,” Dunn said. “It wasn’t so stressful, though, that I didn’t want to do it. It was a challenge that I wanted to tackle. Instead of being scared of it, I wanted the ball. I wanted to be in the game. I wanted control, and when I got flustered, I just calmed myself and buckled down.”
It wasn’t an ideal situation for the Cougars, who finished 12-22 this spring.
Dunn figures to be called upon to pitch much less next season — there are arms on the way. Dunn said the program has recruited four pitchers for next season.
Dunn didn’t allow the new role to affect her at the plate.
Her offensive numbers improved across the board from her strong freshman year.
This spring, Dunn hit .380 with two homers, six doubles and a team-leading eight triples to go with 22 RBIs. She also led the team in runs scored with 32.
Dunn was also disciplined at the plate, striking out just six times and drawing 19 walks in 119 plate appearances.
Part of the reason for the improvement at the plate was her approach at practice.
“All my practice time was spent pitching and hitting,” Dunn said. “Early in the season I tried practicing pitching and hitting and catching and fielding all within a two-hour practice, and that just didn’t work.”
So Dunn simplified things.
It paid off.
Her performance at the plate helped mitigate some of the disappointment when it came to her effectiveness in the circle.
“It really felt good because if I had a bad inning pitching, when I came to the plate and got a hit, it made me feel a lot better about the situation,” Dunn said. “Some things come easier to me than others, and batting most definitely came easier than pitching.”
Dunn also played other positions this season for Chatham.
In the beginning of the campaign, when she wasn’t pitching, she was typically the designated hitter. But she then moved back behind the plate for the first game of doubleheaders before pitching in the nightcaps.
She also played a little outfield this season for the Cougars.
“It was definitely difficult,” Dunn said. “It was hard on me physically.”
But she got through it largely unscathed. She was one of only three players on the roster to start every game.
Chatham suffered a rash of injuries this season, which further complicated matters.
“I was used to the physical abuse,” Dunn said. “My preseason prep helped me get through it — working out, eating right, getting enough sleep.”
Even while she was grinding through a collegiate softball season, Dunn always had an eye on her alma mater.
Dunn’s younger sister, Jess, was the starting catcher at Karns City and had a stellar season for the Gremlins, batting .333 to help the team to a District 9 Class 3A championship.
The COVID shutdown robbed Mackenzie and Jess the chance to play together in high school.
“I felt like my senior year would have been the year that we would have gone far at states,” Mackenzie Dunn said. “It was my last chance to play with (Jess) and those sophomores, who were seniors this year.”
Mackenzie Dunn was close with that group.
“I love watching them succeed. It’s exciting for me,” Dunn said. “That group of girls that just graduated are the group of girls my dad (Russ) coached since they were 10. I’ve been a part of that team this entire time. I loved being around them, watching them. I knew they’d be successful. I had a lot of pride watching their games — I think I made it to all their playoff games.”
Dunn believes much more success await her and her Chatham teammates in the next two years.
“We’re going to see a lot of improvement,” Dunn said. “I see improvement in the team every year. I’m really excited about who we have coming in because recruiting is such a crucial part of college softball. The girls you bring in are either going to push the older girls to play better, or they are going to be starting. Every position is up for grabs all the time. That makes your team better.”