UMBC head softball coach Chris Kuhlmeyer didn't exactly know what he was getting out of freshman pitcher Courtney Coppersmith.
He knew he was getting a good player; people had been heaping praise on the York, Pa., native since Kuhlmeyer took over the program last August. But he didn't get the chance to see her throw until late October because of a dislocated elbow she suffered during the summer, and even then, it was just a couple of times and not against hitters.
Kuhlmeyer had to wait until January to see Coppersmith throw competitively in practice. After seeing her in action and the velocity in her pitches, it didn't shock the first-year head coach when Coppersmith started the season with 10 strikeouts and just three hits against Delaware Feb. 10, but her performances in the following games were "a welcome surprise."
"She's just a go-getter kid who works her tail off and has a lot of grit," Kuhlmeyer said. "Definitely give credit to the previous coaching staff going out to some smaller tournaments … or wherever they found her and making a big push to get her."
Since that opening matchup against the Blue Hens, Coppersmith has become one of the rising stars in Division I softball. She's been a force in the circle, striking out 97 batters in 58 innings with a 1.57 ERA entering play March 14.
Coppersmith also led the country with 13.2 strikeouts per game during the first month of the season. That number dipped slightly to 11.7 in 12 appearances and seven starts, but she remained in the top five in strikeout rate and ranked 37th in strikeouts (82).
Even Coppersmith herself was "absolutely not" expecting this kind of start to her college career. Her injury limited her ability to throw the ball, leaving her feeling "underprepared" for the start of the season.
"I was out for the entire fall season … and I didn't get to throw to a lot of people in the fall or winter," she said. "So I definitely did not expect the beginning of this season to go as well as it has."
Coppersmith dislocated her right elbow three weeks before the school year began at UMBC when her catcher fell on her arm trying to catch a foul ball. Coppersmith is a left-handed pitcher, so it did not affect her throwing motion, but the weeks after getting her brace off were "rough."
Recovery from her injury meant relearning everything from proper hand placement for hitting and fielding a ground ball. It also meant stretching out her ligaments to make sure she got the full range of motion back into her elbow.
"That was not a fun time," Coppersmith said of the rehabilitation. "The [physical trainers] and I … were friends, but when it came to [my rehab], it was not a friendly time because it's being in lots of pain."
But as the season began and Coppersmith started to get more time in the circle, there was little indication she missed months of practice. After her 10-strikeout game against Delaware, she struck out 14 batters against NC State Feb. 24. Two games later, she pitched a full game against UNC Wilmington, striking out 17 batters and allowing just one hit March 2.
When evaluating young pitchers, Kuhlmeyer looks for players who possess grit, stay calm under pressure and can generate a lot of swings and misses, and he believes Coppersmith is that kind of player. But that isn't what makes the Central York High School graduate such an imposing presence.
Coppersmith's pitches break late after her release, and that makes the ball difficult to read for a hitter. It can turn a regular fastball into something completely different, leaving batters swinging at nothing but air.
"She just has great spin on her ball movement," Kuhlmeyer said. "That's hard for hitters to sit in there and hit all the time. That's why she gets a lot of swings and misses. The pitch just spins late. They see it in one spot and the start to swing the next thing they know, it's not there anymore."
That unique spin is something Coppersmith has spent years developing into a staple of her arsenal. Her velocity and pitching motion are still important to Coppersmith, but her spin is what has helped separate her from other pitchers.
"Speed is one thing, but spin is where it really gets you," she said.
Coppersmith is within striking distance of breaking several UMBC single-season pitching records, including strikeouts, ERA and hits allowed. But Kuhlmeyer and Coppersmith agreed there is still so much for her to learn.
"My learning process is adding more to my repertoire," Coppersmith said. "Just trying to become more dynamic and using more pitches. So if one thing isn't working on a particular day, then we have something else to rely on."
As for Kuhlmeyer, he said she could improve on her walks. She currently has 24 walks on the season, which Kuhlmeyer said is "a little high" before adding that "you can't worry about that too much" since she's a freshman.
"That involves control when batters aren't really swinging at her pitches," Kuhlmeyer said. "She has to have the ability to get into the strike zone a little more and hit her spots better."
There is room for improvement in Coppersmith's ability, but she has already made a statement as being a force for the Retrievers. And as someone who looked to pitchers like former Olympian Jennie Finch and former Oklahoma Sooner Keilani Ricketts, she has a plan for what it takes to have a successful college career.
"You can't believe that everyone is going to strike out," she said. "You have to accept the fact that there are going to be really good hitters out there. It just takes resiliency. No matter what happens on the pitch before or what happens on the batter before, you have to treat each batter like a new batter and just go for it."
Photo Credit: UMBC Athletic Communications