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These Comets are streaking

Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli

The Crater softball team is off to a surprising 13-1 start, thanks to a pair of superb young pitchers

CENTRAL POINT - Long considered cornerstones in winning baseball, pitching and defense can also carry a team to spectacular heights in softball.

The Crater High softball squad has exhibited as much in rolling to a surprising 13-1 start to the season.

The splendid pitching of sophomore Jenni Bittle and freshman Janelle Cristofaro and superb team defense have lifted the Comets (5-1 Southern Oregon Conference) into the thick of the SOC championship race in head coach Chris Arnold's first season.

"We know we've got two great pitchers, and we wanna be very supportive of the pitchers," says Arnold, an assistant for three years at The Dalles before coming to Crater. "And so there's an urgency - we've gotta make this play to make sure we help our pitchers out and protect them and what they're trying to do out there on the circle.

"It is a collective team defense, and our team defensive strategy is not to give up anything. We don't wanna give up any extra bases, and when we do have baserunners, we wanna limit them as best we can."

Baserunners have been far and few between against the Comets' 1-2 pitching punch.

Bittle, an honorable mention all-SOC selection as a freshman, boasts a 7-1 record and 0.36 earned-run average. Christofaro is 6-0 and sports an ERA, incredibly, of 0.00.

Crater has permitted just 10 runs in its 14 games, including five in its six SOC contests.

"Jenni and Janelle both put in so much work outside the season, which is definitely the difference in their performance right now," says Arnold, who replaced Mike Meunier as coach and graduated from Klamath Union in 1982. "No one has worked harder than those two. And they complement each other very well."

Bittle credits her father, Jim, and Comets assistant Greg Winner with aiding her development, especially during an off-season when she pitched every other day.

But if it weren't for frustration in left field, Bittle may have never found a home on the mound.

"I started pitching because I was on this team, and I was in left field, and the pitcher just kept walking batters," says Bittle, who can't recall if she was a sixth- or seventh-grader at the time.

"She walked like five batters in a row, and it was so frustrating to me because I couldn't control anything or do anything about it. I went home to my dad, and I was like, 'Dad I wanna pitch.' And he said, 'No, you don't. That takes too much work.' And I said, 'Dad, I feel like I could do it.' And then we started."

From there, Bittle's work ethic has transformed her into one of the pitching-rich SOC's top hurlers.

After compiling an 11-5 record and 1.70 ERA as a freshman, Bittle has tossed eight complete games with an average of almost one strikeout per inning. And she allows less than one hit and/or walk per frame.

"I think I have more game sense to know what to do in different situations with batters," Bittle says in gaging her improvement from a season ago.

Wielding an arsenal of four pitches, with plans to add a fifth this summer, Bittle believes it's her variation - both in pitch-type and location - that keeps batters at bay.

"(The pitches) all work together," says Bittle, who no-hit Sheldon in Eugene in her second career start last year. "I like getting in the batter's head and trying to mess them up not just physically, but mentally."

As an incoming freshman, Christofaro wasn't assured of being Crater's No. 2 starter when the season began.

Four shutouts, two no-hitters and six wins in six starts later, the 5-foot-7 phenom has emerged as a star.

"I worked all winter for this season," Christofaro says. "I usually play basketball, but I didn't play that because I worked on my pitches. ... I knew I was a freshman coming in, and I had to be ready."

Utilizing a three-pitch repertoire, Christofaro hasn't permitted a single earned run this season and has allowed just two runs overall. In 38 innings, she has given up but nine hits and five walks while striking out 26.

Like Bittle, Christofaro enjoys the mental aspect of pitching.

"I think a lot out there," says the lifelong Central Point resident. "I just think where I need to pitch 'em, what pitch I should pitch and where I should go with the ball. I just think constantly when I'm out on the mound."

A potent drop ball helps Christofaro induce waves of hapless ground balls from opposing hitters.

And the experience of competing with and against older players from the start of her American Softball Association fast-pitch career in fourth grade has helped Christofaro in her leap to the varsity level.

"ASA you play a lot of higher teams, and I've been playing with older girls all my life," says Christofaro, who began pitching as a first-grader.

Backing Bittle and Christofaro, the Comets run out a solid lineup that is led by returning third-team all-state performer Leann Foster, the team's lone senior.

A standout in center field and as Crater's cleanup hitter, Foster is an inspiring story in herself.

A mystery illness sidelined the star for two weeks of her junior campaign last spring. Originally told she might have a brain tumor and then misdiagnosed with epilepsy, Foster finally discovered she has a form of syncope - hers characterized by severe drops in blood pressure and heart rate due to intense exercise - during a two-week visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Foster gained 25 pounds while not running from last July until late-December and is just now rounding back into her accustomed shape.

"I used to be a three-sport athlete, and then I dropped down to just softball because it's my love," says Foster, who expects to play for a Division III or NAIA program next year. "There's no way I could go through and stop playing softball."

Foster is the unabashed leader of a core that includes the Bittle-Christofaro pitching combination, junior catcher Kelle Thomas, junior first baseman Crystal Huntley, junior second baseman Brandy Wolter, freshman shortstop Tyler Sutherland, junior third baseman Angie Wright, junior outfielder Kelsey Anhorn, sophomore outfielders Allesha Spradling and Rachel Baker and freshman utility Justine Bettencourt.

And Foster relishes her role in helping the young Comets, picked fourth in the preseason coaches poll after finishing fourth last season, strive for the program's first conference championship since 1993 - and more.

"It's all about camaraderie and unity," she says. "We all want to do this together. Basically, it's like a team of sisters."

Consider that cornerstone No. — for a Crater squad intent on opening more eyes as this season continues.

Reach reporter Tim Pyle at 776-4483 or e-mail tpyle@mailtribune.com

These Comets are streaking