Amber Buttler never went to a camp for fast-pitch softball players. And, she never received any special instruction on the fine art of pitching underhand.
Instead, Buttler taught herself how to pitch, hanging a tire in a shed at her home in Aitkin and throwing countless balls through it.
The hard work and unique training Buttler put into her pitching has paid off as she's helped the Central Lakes College Raiders softball team to a 12-4 North Division record and the top ranking in the state.
"I have a tire set up in a hay shed at home and I've thrown at it many times," said Buttler. "I also have a lot of pitching experience because I've been throwing since I was in the 10th grade. I think actual game experience is better than any clinic I could go to."
Pitcher Amber Buttler has helped the Raiders to a 13-5 record. Brainerd Dispatch / Nels Norquist
The Raiders own an overall record of 13-5 and have won five of their last six games. Buttler, who has a 10-5 record with more than 40 strikeouts, has played a major role in the success of the two-time defending MCCC state champions.
The transition from high school softball, where a team rarely played doubleheaders, to college where every outing is two games, wasn't the easiest task for Buttler. There have been only three games Buttler hasn't pitched this season.
"Amber has come to terms that she might have to pitch 14 innings if we need her," Raiders coach Bob Sullivan said. "At first it was a change for her but she hasn't backed down at all. Amber doesn't generally throw a lot of pitches so she can go two games."
Four times this year Buttler has had to pitch extra innings, adding to the toll she takes on the mound. With a few players out with injuries, Buttler has had to bat for herself as well.
"College softball is not only physically draining, it's also mentally draining," Buttler said. "There's some days you wonder where you'll find the energy to throw 14 innings or even more. But it wouldn't be fair to the other girls if I didn't give it my all. They've never let me down so I wouldn't want to let them down."
Amber Buttler has pitched in all but three games this season.
In high school, Buttler thought she needed to get as many outs as she could to take pressure off her defense. This season, Buttler is relying more on her teammates and the defense behind her.
"There are times when I feel like I have to do it on my own," Buttler said, "but my teammates reassure me they'll back me up. I have every bit of faith in the girls behind me that they'll do everything to stop the ball."
Last Friday against Mesabi, Buttler and her defense were in sync. In five innings, Buttler threw only 47 pitches, 41 strikes.
"Amber was on and our defense was on," Sullivan said of the Mesabi game. "We got about five foul-ball outs and made a couple of heads-up plays in the infield to get runners out. And, Amber just got stronger and stronger."
A big reason for Buttler's success is the relationship she has with catcher Leigha Walters. Buttler throws a fastball, changeup and an occasional curve. But when she really needs a strike, Buttler rears back and lets it rip.
"Leigha has done an excellent job of calling pitches," said Buttler. "The first inning is a trial inning to see what the ump likes. If he's giving me the outside that's what we focus on. I try to stick to corners but when I'm behind in the count I feel confident that I can get it in there and get a strike."
Just like throwing at that old tire hanging in the shed.
TROY GUNDERSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5865.
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