Jan. 13, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
At six feet tall and the ability to throw five pitches well, sophomore Nickie Blue can strike an imposing figure in the pitching circle. She won 18 games for the Gamecocks as a rookie last year and led NCAA Division I with seven saves.
"People tell me I'm intimidating," Blue said. "Before they get a chance to talk to me they think I'm scary or mean, but it's just the way I carry myself when I'm pitching. I'm not always intimidating. I'm pretty funny. I make myself laugh. I get joy in making other people laugh."
Whether she's intimidating or funny, she is also humble. Despite those impressive numbers, Blue defers praise to her teammates, including fellow pitcher Julie Sarrratt with whom she split time as a starter and a closer.
"I think Julie deserves a lot of the credit," Blue said. "If she hadn't done her job in the beginning of the game and held on to the lead, then I wouldn't have the opportunity to get the save."
Blue was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team after the 2014 season. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, Blue grew up in Longmont, Colorado, before finding her way to South Carolina, where she led the Gamecocks with 173.1 innings pitched last spring.
"I just really loved the atmosphere of everything," Blue said. "It's the community. Here, there is such a sense of camaraderie. There was just something different about these coaches that I couldn't get off my mind. They ultimately drew me to this school, and I haven't regretted the decision since."
Neither has head coach Beverly Smith, who bucked a traditional softball trend of staying with one pitcher for the entire game each day. Numerous saves are not common in softball, but Smith successfully implemented a platoon system where either Sarratt or Blue would start, and the other would finish.
"It really doesn't matter because either situation that I am put in, I knew Julie was going to do her job, and that's going to allow me to do my job," Blue said. "Either way, we just supported each other. It was tough at first because in high school I was always `the one.' I was totally fine with it though because I realized this was what was best for the team, so it was fun."
"I loved it," Sarratt added. "Nickie and I worked really well together. We're totally different pitchers, so it really works in a game. If I start, they see more of the off-speed, spinning stuff, and she comes in and blows them away with the power, or vice versa. It's a totally different look for the hitters."
"Here, there is such a sense of camaraderie. There was just something different about these coaches that I couldn't get off my mind. They ultimately drew me to this school, and I haven't regretted the decision since."
Regardless of when she enters a game, Blue likes to feel that she has the advantage.
"It is a little different because when you go in during the fourth or fifth inning, you've had a chance to watch what the hitters do," Blue said. "Either way, when you come in as a pitcher you just have to go right at them and just have that killer mindset all the time. For as much video that you can watch, you can try and guess what a pitcher is going to throw you, but it's a lot different once you get into the (batter's) box. It's an advantage because the hitter is just left guessing and can be at the pitcher's mercy since we can throw whatever we want."
"We were definitely thin in the circle last year, so I started talking to them in January about this plan," Smith said. "They just complement each other so much because they are such opposites. You go from Julie, who is a spin master and can spot a pitch on a dime and change speeds, and then you come with Nickie who throws so hard and at your knees. They are both selfless players. They both want to win."
Blue notes that one of the keys to being a successful pitcher at this level is the mental game.
"You can push yourself to the limit physically, but you can go further if you have a strong mental game," Blue said. "That's something I've really had to work on; to play to the best of my ability every game and not to give in when it gets hard. When I give up a hit, I just try to get back to my game plan. If a girl hits a home run off my best pitch, then she beat me, but she's not going to do it again. I've worked a lot on not feeling defeated after giving up a big hit and being able to rely on my defense behind me."
While Blue is confident in her abilities, she knew it wouldn't be easy to make the jump from being one of the best high school pitchers in her home state to competing in the SEC.
"The biggest difference was knowing that you're not the absolute best," Blue said. "In Colorado everyone knew who I was, but coming here, everyone is the best one from their high school team. Having teammates behind you really helps you to not give up. Julie and I play the same position, but she's my best friend on the field. We both support each other so much and want the other to succeed."
As her sophomore season approaches, Blue is ready to take on any role that is thrown her way. After batting over .500 her last three years in high school, she wouldn't mind an opportunity to stare down an opposing pitcher as well.
"I love hitting," Blue said. "I may get more of a chance to hit, but I understand why I didn't hit much last year because if either Julie or I got hurt then it would have really hurt the team. My pitching job was more important than my hitting role, but I'm really excited to get an opportunity to hit sometimes."
One of her goals is to help South Carolina reach the Women's College World Series, but inspired by a supportive family back home, Blue is focused on one game at a time.
"My goals are to keep the softball atmosphere very family-oriented," Blue said. "I just want to play all-out every game and have faith in my teammates and let them know I have confidence in them."
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