Every softball club needs an ace pitcher. For Colorado State’s softball team, that ace is Holly Reinke.
Reinke established herself as one of the most dominant pitchers in the Mountain West last season as a sophomore, registering 20 wins in 24 starts for the third most wins in a season in CSU program history. She used her perfect 5-0 start to emerge as CSU’s No. 1, and went on to hold opponents to a .256 batting average for a rank of fifth in the MW while also notching a 2.56 earned run average, which was third-best in the conference. CSU rolled to a 32-17 record last season, making Reinke the pitcher of record for over 62 percent of the Rams’ wins.
So there was no doubt in CSU head coach Jen Fisher’s mind that Reinke would be her ace when she returned for this season as a junior.
“When you have someone like Holly, you’re going to throw them,” Fisher said.
But to start this season, Reinke stumbled out of the gate, losing in her first three starts and six of her first seven.
“It was definitely frustrating, I think I came off of a real high from last year,” Reinke said. “I felt expectations that I was supposed to come out and do the exact same thing (this year), which was fair. I mean I wanted it, too, it wasn’t like pressure from everybody else, it was pressure on myself to want to do just as well.”
Part of why Reinke saw what seemed to be diminishing success is due to the increased level of competition on CSU’s schedule this year compared to last. The Rams have played six games against teams either ranked in the top 25 or receiving votes in the top 25, and Reinke pitched in five of them, enduring losses to No. 18 Nebraska, No. 19 Arizona State, No. 15 Minnesota and Texas, which received votes.
But Feb. 28, everything turned around. Reinke picked up a win against Bryant in which she gave up only one run, and it must have sparked the Rams. CSU won its first 11 games in March for a total of 12 in a row, six of which came courtesy of Reinke, who brought her record back to .500 at 8-8 on the season with her six-game win-streak. The junior threw a signature shutout in which she gave up zero walks against Buffalo March 14 in Northridge, California.
“I couldn’t even tell she lost those first games, she does a really good job of keeping her composure,” sophomore infielder Haley Hutton said.
Reinke said she took a helpful step back after her early-season struggles to refocus and return to the winning habit she developed last year and during her illustrious high school career at D’Evelyn in Littleton, where she threw 18 career no-hitters and was elected first-team all-state in each of her four years.
“Honestly, I think I went through a big mental change,” Reinke said of the shift to success this year. “I went through a lot of self-focus, trying to reconnect with who I was last year, and trusting in my abilities, and a lot of trust in God with that, he provided me with a lot of that strength.”
Part of what Reinke changed was quitting trying to emulate last season.
“I just switched, I didn’t expect myself to do like last year, I just wanted to be me again and play the game,” she explained.
Statistically, the junior is back among the top pitchers in the Mountain West. Though her ERA and opponent batting average are up somewhat significantly from last year’s solid marks to 4.51 and .327, respectively, Reinke’s 60 strikeouts and eight wins rank her fourth in the conference in each of those categories.
What makes Reinke such a tough pitcher is partly her ability to throw a knuckleball, a rarity in softball.
“I have big enough hands that I can throw it,” she said of the knuckle.
Fisher sometimes has trouble catching for her because of the high unpredictability of Reinke’s knuckleball.
“I’ve never had a pitcher that can throw the knuckle as well as she does,” Fisher stated. “I catch her in the bullpen sometimes and it will shock the heck out of me, moving different directions.”
Reinke learned to throw the difficult pitch from Richard Shriner, who has served as Reinke’s de facto pitching coach since she was just nine years old.
“He’s kind of my father figure in a way, another father figure I have,” Reinke said of Shriner.
Additionally, Reinke has displayed her skill at the plate this season with more allowance from Fisher to hit. She took only four at-bats last season and got one hit, but this year already Reinke has eight hits – including one home run – on 29 at-bats for an average of .276.
“Her first role on our team is as a pitcher, so it really takes a lot of persistence to go ahead and keep hitting,” Fisher said. “For two years, she really did all the same (batting) drills as all the other girls and kept showing me ‘I want to hit.'”
Though the start of March treated Reinke and the Rams well, they closed out the month with four straight losses, two of which went to Reinke to put her record at 8-10 on the year, before beating Northern Colorado last week. But with conference play underway, expect to see Reinke continue to persist. Fisher said the junior will likely start this week when the team goes to San Jose State for a three game series.
“We expect her to get a lot of innings from here on out in all the conference series,” Fisher said.
When her softball career ends, you might catch Holly Reinke on the basketball courts at the Student Recreation Center or Rolland Moore park. The health and exercise science major earned three letters and three all-conference selections in hoops in high school and tied the state record for three-pointers made in a game with 10 her senior year.
“I think when I’m done with softball I’ll go play some pick-up basketball,” Reinke said with completely seriousness.
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.