A dream softball matchup occurs often during Carroll softball practices: senior pitcher Jessi Haffner, a two-time All-Metro selection who is 3-0 in Class 5A title games, facing junior Brittany Finney at the plate.
One of the state’s top pitchers, who has signed with Oklahoma State, eager to set down a top-notch hitter.
Now reverse that matchup and the intrigue only heightens because now it’s Finney, one of the state’s top pitchers who has made an oral commitment to Oklahoma, intent on getting out Haffner, also a top-notch hitter.
That’s right. Two of the state’s top pitchers face each other in practice in what are state tournament-caliber games.
“I’m not trying to be cocky, but I’d say we’re two of the better pitchers in the state, and when we’re hitting against each other, we’re getting the best competition,” Haffner said. “… She can make me a better hitter, and I can make her a better hitter.”
Finney, who transferred from Maize to Carroll in January after moving with her dad to a new home, was a 2013 All-Metro selection. She hit .461 with 36 RBIs and four homers, and had a 0.61 ERA, striking out 60.
Haffner, who had a no-hitter through six innings of the 2013 5A title game, had a 0.99 ERA, struck out 93 and walked 14. She also had 41 RBIs and had a .536 batting average with one strikeout, six homers.
“Obviously we want to go as far as we did last year,” said Carroll’s first-year coach Steve Harshberger, whose team is a favorite to win 5A for the fourth straight year. “With these two, it’s a possiblity. We still have to play good defense and outscore your opponents.”
Harshberger prefers daily intrasquad games, partly so his players can face Haffner and Finney. The at-bats start with a 2-1 count.
“The whole team is competitors,” Harshberger said. “When they face each other, it’s a war. They both want to hit off each other.”
Neither Haffner nor Finney is shy about strongly expressing their competitiveness toward the other.
“She’s one of those players that when I see her coming up to the plate, I’ve got to get her out,” Finney said. “She’s a great hitter. Most of the time she hits me. But it makes me a better player for it. She’s a great pitcher and hitter, so it’s a challenge for me.”
It’s not easy hitting off either Finney or Haffner.
“They both have a lot of velocity, they both have a lot of spin … and they’re really bulldogs on the mound,” said junior catcher Lauren Buchanan, who has caught Haffner for three seasons and caught Finney during summer ball.
“They throw so many (different) pitches and throw them consistently for strikes. It makes it easier for me and a lot more fun to call the game.”
Buchanan has made an oral commitment with Colorado State.
Haffner has seen her game progress since her freshman season, especially her physical and mental strength. Buchanan notes that Haffner is quick to forget a mistake, bearing down on the next batter, searching for the out.
Finney’s goal is to throw every pitch hard with spin, whether it’s her curve, rise ball, or her favorite, the changeup.
“I like to go at people,” she said. “I don’t like to get behind. I start getting nervous and not pitching very well if I get behind.”
Joining a team with a prolific pitcher such as Haffner could have been just as daunting as having such an outstanding pitcher like Finney join your team.
But there’s no animosity. Their battles exist only when the pitchers face each other on the field. If either needs help with mechanics, the other is willing to assist.
See, all that competitiveness is healthy, all about getting better and winning.
When Finney transferred, she settled back and deduced the dynamics of the team to see how she fit.
She has been accepted as a vocal leader.
“Jessi and I both like to win,” Finney said. “We’re definitely not going to let anything get in our way. We’re both really determined.”
While Carroll has been Haffner’s team and she leads by example while also utilizing a quick wit and slick sarcasm, her focus is squarely on winning. And Finney will help Carroll win, so why not welcome her with open arms?
One key adjustment for Haffner is a change to her pitching style. She’s been Carroll’s power pitcher, a hard-throwing pitcher who has hit 64 mph. But Finney throws harder, hitting 70 mph.
“I really had to change it this year,” Haffner said. “With Brittany throwing faster than me, I can’t muscle it past people. I was the power pitcher last year. I had to change my game plain.
“It’s definitely helped me a lot. It’s prepared me in more ways than one. Going into college, I won’t be the hardest thrower again, so I’ll have to change my game plan, moving pitches and changing up speeds.”
How Haffner is doing on her adjustments doesn’t have to wait for the Eagles’ next doubleheader. She’ll know after a practice, probably after facing Finney.