College softball: Former pitcher Kirstyn Thomas has become Washington's new elite power hitter
In the world of collegiate fastpitch, Kirstyn Thomas is the equivalent of Aaron Judge or Kris Bryant — so says Heather Tarr, coach of the top-ranked Washington softball team.
"That's who she compares to," Tarr said. "That kid, she'd be a first-round draft pick if she were a man, with her tools, her size, her speed, her strength."
Tarr's words and tone can only be characterized as wistful. The Huskies are reaping the benefits of Thomas' skills, which have helped them to a 39-2 record with designs on the program's second national title. Thomas has emerged as one of the leading power hitters not just in the rugged Pac-12, but the nation, with a .414 average, .767 slugging percentage, 11 homers and 47 runs batted in through Saturday.
But the flip side is the realization that as a senior, Thomas' only viable post-college avenues are the National Pro Fastpitch League, which has just five teams and is hardly a lucrative endeavor, or perhaps catching on with a team overseas, as former Huskies star Ali Aguilar is doing in Japan.
B1 | Thomas with a single on a rope, then takes second as the throw tries to get Bates and fails! Two runners in scoring position with one down. pic.twitter.com/zuuaA9zSUx— Washington Softball (@UWSoftball) April 7, 2018
It's encouraging that softball has been added back to the Olympics in 2020 after being removed in 2012 and 2016, but in general, even the most decorated college players have limited options.
"She has the potential to play beyond if she wants to,'' Tarr said. "But in our sport you have to really want to, because it does make you definitely slow your life down. You have to just be that for a while."
Thomas, who has already graduated with a double major in communications and sociology, says she is not thinking that far ahead. Not with such a promising senior season to finish with Washington. But the story of how Thomas got to this dominant stage in Seattle after initially committing to Nicholls State in Louisiana, and then converting from pitching her first two years at UW to become a star first baseman her final two, is one worth recounting.
Thomas, who attended George Bush High School in Richmond, Texas, near Houston, got antsy late in her junior year when other players began committing to schools, and she had no offers. When Nicholls State became the first school to make an offer, she gave a verbal commitment.
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"It was getting down to crunch time, and everyone else was signing," Thomas recalled. "Then I heard from my high school coach that Washington was interested. I talked to my travel-ball coach and said, 'Hey, how come you didn't tell me?'"
The coach, it turned out, had figured Thomas didn't want to travel that far away, particularly with her mom going through health issues at the time (she's better now). Assistant coach Lance Glasoe was the one who had caught wind of Thomas' exploits, and the Huskies made one more run in the fall of 2014, Thomas' senior year. But they backed off when told she had committed to Nicholls.
"Two days later, I got a heartfelt email from Kirstyn, that whatever everyone else is saying about me is not true and I do want to consider Washington," Tarr said. "I think everyone else around her was kind of speaking for her."
Tarr and Glasoe flew out to Texas to watch a tournament, where the coach described Thomas as "the biggest, fastest, strongest person on the team — kind of a woman amongst girls."
The Huskies invited her for a visit, which led to a commitment — this one eventually formalized in a letter of intent.
"Once I came up here, I fell in love with the school," Thomas said.
"It was kind of a no-brainer decision for her,'' Tarr added. "She wanted to step up to the big leagues. No disrespect to a Nicholls State, but that's kind of minor-league ball."
The Huskies viewed Thomas as an athlete who could both pitch and play the field, but as a freshman their biggest need was in the circle. She appeared in 17 games as a pitcher, six as a starter, and went 3-2 with a 6.54 earned-run average.
But Thomas was what is referred to as a "leaper," meaning her foot left the ground during delivery, which at the time was an illegal pitch. They worked hard on changing her style, "but she had a long way to go if she was going to pitch at this level,'' Tarr said.
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When current Huskies pitching star Taran Alvelo arrived the next year, along with Madi Schreyer, the Huskies began to transition Thomas to a corner-infield spot. And last season, when Julia DePonte got hurt midway through the season, Thomas became a regular, hitting .285 with eight homers and 31 RBIs.
That's respectable, but this year Thomas has taken a quantum leap to stardom, earning national player of the week honors after hitting .688/.737/.1.813 with five homers in the season-opening Bradley tournament.
Though Thomas will still occasionally throw a few pitches during practice, it's just for fun now. She definitely has the mindset and sensibility of a hitter.
"Hitting has always been the most exhilarating for me,'' she said. "Just the feeling — you can't get a better feeling than hitting the ball hard off the bat."
It's a feeling Thomas has experienced often, even while playing in arguably the toughest conference in the country. Says Tarr: "If she played in a mid-major conference, she'd hit 40 home runs. She's that good."
And whenever her swing doesn't feel quite right, Thomas will send video to her older brother, Dillon, who reached Class AAA during seven years in the Colorado Rockies organization as a fourth-round draft pick. Dillon will likely play independent ball this year. He provides batting tips for his sister as well as advice on mental aspects of the game.
"My whole life, I've been following my brother and trying to be better than him," Thomas said. "We still kind of have that rivalry like, hey, I'm doing better than you. Definitely growing up and following him has led me where I am."
And while her softball future might be up in the air, where Kirstyn Thomas is right now is a very good place to be.
This article is written by Larry Stone from Seattle Times and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.