Michele Pilster is a step ahead of the game. The Capuchino High ace combines serious heat in the circle with some off-speed action, which catapulted the Mustangs from a Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division bottom-dweller to the Central Coast Section Division III championship game last year.
After a disappointing 2009 season, the Mustangs reloaded, this time with Pilster’s healthy right arm in the circle after she pitched for two years with an over-stretched tendon.
Now Pilster and Capuchino (20-6) take aim at returning to the section title game, and walking off the field as champions this time. The second-seeded Mustangs open the CCS Division III playoffs by playing No. 7 seed Christopher of Gilroy on Saturday at noon at Hawes Field in Redwood City.
Pilster’s game goes beyond talent, it expands to hours and hours of repetition – the mentality that every second counts and if she isn’t doing something to improve her craft, her competition sure is.
“Most pitchers think of softball as something you can only work on at the field,” said Pilster, a PAL Bay co-pitcher of the year in 2010. “I watch games on TV and I have like 20 balls lying around at home and I just spin them and practice my movement.”
Pilster, who also played basketball at Capuchino, started playing fast-pitch softball as a catcher at 7 years old, but began pitching on a regular basis when she was 10, hoping to impact every play.
The 5-foot-9 right-hander has been a four-year varsity starter for the Mustangs, initially making the team with a strong arm and top club experience.
“She’s always been able to throw heat,” said Capuchino coach Todd Grammatico. “But in her last two years she’s added a devastating knuckleball.”
This improvement came with the help of former Tennessee pitcher and current College of San Mateo coach Nicole Borg, who hurled Capuchino to two CCS titles in 1996-97.
“I was throwing a lot of heat, but (batters) kept fouling that off, so then I decided to add some off-speed (stuff),” said Pilster. “I don’t throw a changeup, I mostly throw a knuckle, so I have an off-speed curve and an off-speed screw that I use.”
Borg has been much more than just a pitching coach, according to Pilster.
“Nicole is a strong coach, she’s a hard coach, an all-around coach,” said Pilster, who plans to attend CSM in the fall. “Before our relationship was more of a coach-to-player thing, but now is more of a sister bond thing. I see her as an older sister and as a mentor to me – she’s taught me so much about the game, much more than any other coaches I’ve had.”
Pilster’s improvement showed the most in her junior year as she led Capuchino to a section final. The Mustangs fell just short of the title in a 2-1 loss to Valley Christian in an eight-inning affair.
“Making it to CCS was really special … it’s like all of a sudden, we just clicked,” said senior Jamie Navarro, who has been catching Pilster for the last eight years. “Michele and I came to varsity together and to be able to come from the bottom and go that far meant a lot to both of us.”
But just as she has experienced success, Pilster is no stranger to tough situations as she faced an unpredictable scenario in September of last year while pitching for the San Jose Lady Sharks.
“In one of my tournaments, my grandpa passed away when I was playing,” said Pilster. “I came in the game feeling something was wrong, so it was tough for me to play but I just left that off the field. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll keep playing for you.’”
This year, Pilster racked up 90 strikeouts in 14 PAL Bay games, while batting .325 with 10 RBIs and a home run.
“The change to 43 (feet to the plate) from 40 kind of threw me off at the beginning, but now I’ve been hitting 60, 61, 62 (miles per hour) consistently,” said Pilster. “Coaches here (at Capuchino) live this sport, they’ll stay after practice to help you and if you wanna come and hit on the weekend you can ask them to open the cage for you. They just really want you to get better.”
Pilster complements a technical/cerebral/student-of-the-game approach with fierce competitiveness.
“Losing kills me,” she said. “I just can’t handle it. I’m a totally different person on the field. When I go out there you never see me smile – I’m just zoned in.”
“She’s a hard worker, determined and just a great leader,” said her teammate Jennifer Lewis. “She’s just great to play with and always there to pick you up.”