Bears softball primed for postseason play
RIFLE – Erica Graham is an old-fashioned, iron-arm pitcher, with a modern-medicine reconstructed knee.
The Rifle High School senior tore the ACL in her right knee skiing last winter. After the damage was diagnosed, their were doubts Graham would return to the pitcher’s mound for the high school softball team this season.
The surgery was successful and Graham’s work ethic toward rehabbing the injured leg has turned into a magical season for Graham and the Bears.
Heading into Saturday’s Class 4A, District 7 semifinals this weekend, Graham has pitched in 80 percent of Rifle’s total innings.
“I was skiing at Sunlight (Mountain Resort) when my bindings came off my skis,”recalled Graham of the injury. “My knee snapped, and when it happened, I was kind of worried about softball because (the doctors) said it would take six months for me to get back.”
Graham’s old-school work ethic beat the doctor’s prognosis.
She started rehabbing the knee in March and was back on the mound five months later.
“(The doctors) told me to be careful, so I was worried about twisting my knee,” said Graham of the first time she pitched after the injury.
She admitted that, “the first time I pitched was a little scary. But after a week or so, everything seemed normal again.”
And normal meant bad news for opposing hitters.
“Erica is a tough young lady,” noted coach Cindy Skinner. “She had to work hard to come back from the knee injury, and she had an ankle that was a little sore, but all she wanted to do is come back and pitch.”
After absorbing some early-season losses, caused by unearned runs, Graham hit her stride at the Elizabeth Tournament.
She pitched the Bears to three wins in the pre-league tournament, then continued to mow down hitters in league play.
Graham’s crowning jewel of the regular season came during a weekend series against Montezuma-Cortez at Fort Lewis College in Durango.
In the opening game with the Panthers, the senior right-hander had a season-high 12 strikeouts and a one-hitter in the 6-0 Bear win.
She had a better outing in game two of the double-header.
Graham continued her dominance against Cortez by twirling a no-hitter in the nightcap.
“I didn’t know I was throwing a no-hitter,” Graham said. “I was just there. It didn’t occur to me what was happening.”
The rest of the Bears were well aware of what Graham was doing, and following softball tradition, they didn’t speak to their teammate as the zeroes mounted.
Throughout the gem, all Graham kept doing was focusing in on catcher Bell’s signs – a ritual she’s had for the last two years.
“Skylar’s mitt is the only thing I see when I’m pitching,” Graham said. “She’s awesome. If I throw a bad pitch, she always knows what to do.”
And the catcher has helped Graham compile a 13-5 win-loss record this year with more than 100 strikeouts.
That record propelled the Bears to the Western Slope League pennant and the accompanying No. 1 seed at Saturday’s district tournament.
Graham’s also one of Rifle’s best hitters. Her batting average has floated near or at .400 all season, and is among the team’s leaders in doubles and runs batted-in.
Now, she and the Bears are taking aim at earning a state playoff berth.
“I think we’re going to do real well at districts,” Graham said. “It’s more stressful (than the regular season) because you want to go to state, but I think we’re going to state this year.”
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Down 14-7 with less than 11 minutes left in regulation, Rifle head coach Todd Casebier decided it was time to deviate from his ground-and-pound offense for a bit of an aerial attack.