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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Football

‘Talented’ junior pitcher, All-American hopeful leads team to winning record


Junior starting pitcher Savannah Heebner is fighting to become an All-American this season, and the softball team is riding her to victories nightly. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

“Heeb’s doing Heeb things.”

This is a common comment among the softball players every time junior starting pitcher Savannah Heebner uses the cannon some call an arm to blow pitches past her opponents.

Her pitching has been an integral part of the team’s success this season, accounting for over half of their victories. At 6’0″, Heebner stands out both on the mound and on the stat sheet.

“To be honest, she’s just talented, and one thing that people don’t really pay attention to that sets her apart is she’s a very good defender,” said head coach Kristin Vesely. “She plays as a mean, mean defender.”

Seeking warmer weather

Heebner hails from Castle Rock, Colorado. As a four year letter-winner at Castle View High School, Heebner was named the 2015 Gatorade National Player of the Year her senior year. She said she loves warm weather, so much so that it was a major reason why she committed to Houston.

When Vesely was an assistant coach, she went up to watch Heebner play during the recruiting process. She immediately knew she wanted Heebner on the roster.

One pitcher had already committed for that recruiting class, but when the coaches discovered Heebner, they moved some resources around and added Heebner as well.

Heebner described herself as someone with a powerful arm but also as someone who consistently struggled with accuracy when she was younger, something she thought might hold her back.

In her first season on the team, Heebner was thrown into the proverbial fire. She found herself on the mound for more innings than any of her contemporaries, but she responded with the most wins on the team — nine — and she tied for the lowest ERA on the squad — 3.50. While not a perfect debut season, she showed flashes of the unrefined potential that intrigued the coaching staff enough to recruit her in the first place.

In her follow-up campaign, Heebner was crucial in the team’s run to the American Athletic Conference title game. After spending a full offseason training, Heebner showed substantial improvement on the mound. She increased her number of wins and strikeouts and lowered her ERA by more than a full run — 2.13. For a second consecutive season, she led the team in all three categories.

Twenty-win goal

The 2018 season has seen the softball team ride Heebner to success. Of their 34 games played, she has appeared in 24 and started 15. At 22-12 the Cougars are on pace for a return trip to the conference final thanks to Heebner.

Heebner finds herself in the Top 20 in the nation in ERA, as well as Top 10 in the number of shutouts thrown this season (7), but she is quick to deflect the credit to her coaching staff.

“(Vesely) consistently has me in good matchups,” Heebner said. “(She) throws me into games that (she) knows I’m going to do well in. (The coaches) know the matchups between what kind of hitters they are and what my best pitches are, and they know my best pitches are gonna beat their best hitters.”

Before her college career is finished, Heebner said she wants to be named an All-American like her mentor, Coach Ves, as the team affectionately refers to her.

“Personally, I want her to have 20 wins,” Vesely said. “That, to me, statistically you cannot deny how great you are and how hard your team plays behind you if you have 20 wins.”

Currently sitting at 14-4 with 19 games left on their schedule, Heebner will need to be sharp on the mound to achieve her goals and those laid out by Vesely, but they are attainable.

The decision to recruit Heebner continues to look like a masterstroke. There are few collegiate players that compare to her in stature or performance.

“(Her teammates) always say: ‘Heeb’s doing Heeb things,’” Vesely said, “and I didn’t understand that, but there’s a couple times she’s played second base at practice where she’ll go over and take balls and she’ll make plays that the majority of our team cannot make. She knows the game very well, and I don’t think she gets the credit she deserves for that most of the time.”

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