DUNLAP — Prior to the start of the 2014 high school softball season, Concord High School coach Dawn Austin knew she had a major decision to make.
Although she had a three-year starter in Jenny Miller returning as her ace pitcher, Austin knew the best hope of success for the Minutemen would be to have Miller fill a hole at shortstop and have either junior RaeAnn Miller or sophomore Kiley Austin take over in the circle.
Although there were a few hiccups early, RaeAnn Miller has has become a dominating force in the last several weeks, as the red-hot Minutemen race towards the Class 4A Elkhart Sectional.
On Saturday, May 10, RaeAnn fanned 18 hitters as Concord won an 11-inning marathon against Lakeland. Just two days later, she tossed a two-hitter as the Minutemen surprised then-4A No. 5 Northridge 3-1, as Miller outdueled all-state candidate Haley Nixon.
“RaeAnn has made a lot of progress since the start of the season and she’s gained a lot of confidence in the last few weeks,’’ Austin understated. ”Now she’s not only throwing hard, but she’s getting ahead in the count and throwing a lot more strikes. That’s helped her stay strong as the game goes on.’’
But to RaeAnn Miller, the first step to success this season was to talk to Jenny Miller (no relation) prior to the start of the season.
"I really look up to Jenny as a player and a person and I wanted to be sure she was okay with everything,’’ RaeAnn Miller said. “But Jenny has just been great, whether I had questions or to give me a boost of confidence when I needed it. Plus, she’s having a great season too at shortstop.’’
Having a coach like Austin, a former pitching coach at the University of Notre Dame and a head coach at Goshen College — who also played collegiately at Penn State University — has also played a big roll in RaeAnn’s improvement.
"Coach Austin is not only a great coach, but she played softball at the top levels,’’ RaeAnn Miller said. ”So it’s great to be able to talk to her about any situation I face and know she’s been there, too.’’
Austin has worked with RaeAnn on mixing her pitches effectively to keep hitters off-balance, while also staying in control in the circle.
"I think knowing when to use your breaking stuff is one of the hardest things for a young pitcher to learn and RaeAnn struggled with that early in the year,’’ Austin said. “No matter how hard a pitcher throws, if you can sit on something that’s straight and flat, a hitter will catch-up to it.
"But as the season has gone on, RaeAnn has learned when to throw the change-up and how to throw it for strikes. That has made her a much better pitcher.’’
While Austin’s knowledge of the game has been invaluable to Miller’s success, the Concord coach may have a unique way to pass her thoughts on to her new ace.
"RaeAnn is such a good student, that I could just write the scouting report down on each hitter and each situation and just let her read it,’’ Austin said. ”Right now, she does a great job of preparing mentally for each start, but that may just help add to her level of concentration.’’
To Miller, perhaps the biggest key to her continued improvement has been confidence and the support and play of her teammates.
"With the talent we have, I know we can compete with anyone right now and I’m just happy to do what I can to help,’’ Miller said. “I’ve worked hard this year on getting better and with the success we’ve had, my confidence had grown too. Now, I’m hoping we can put everything together in the tournament and play like I know we can.’’