Even as a freshman at Alexander Central High School in the small western North Carolina town of Taylorsville, Chelsea Wilkinson forced softball coach Monte Sherrill to make a lineup change because of her pitching prowess.
The 2009 Cougars had a two-time all-state pitcher in Megan Laxton returning for her senior year, but Sherrill’s steadfast rule is to play the best players. Wilkinson fit that description, so Sherrill installed his freshman in the circle, and Laxton gracefully changed positions.
"She was basically a superstar waiting to happen in many regards," Sherrill said.
That wait did not last much longer than it takes Wilkinson's devastating riseball to zoom past helpless batters.
Dominant from the get-go, Wilkinson helped lead the Cougars to the 2009 Class 4A state championship, giving up three hits and striking out 12 in the final game.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," Wilkinson said. "But the catcher (Lauren Elder), she's one of my best friends and she also was a freshman starting, so it made me feel a lot better, seeing her right there and knowing she was in the same shoes."
Wilkinson's nerves are long gone, and her mastery of opposing hitters has persisted.
After two more seasons that included a second state title in 2011, Wilkinson has climbed within striking distance of several state records, earned a scholarship to North Carolina State and also developed into a stellar hitter.
"She's lethal on the rubber and in the batter's box, so she's the total package as far as softball players go," Sherrill said.
As a junior this past season, to go with a .358 batting average and seven home runs, Wilkinson compiled a 31-2 record. She struck out 370 batters in 212 innings, logged a 0.66 ERA and was named a first-team All-American by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association while earning her second straight Gatorade North Carolina softball player of the year award.
Wilkinson also struck out 52 batters in four games on her way to earning MVP honors in the state championship series for the second time.
"It is without a doubt one of the best feelings ever," Wilkinson said of the state titles. "The two that we've won were so exciting and fun, and hopefully we'll go again this year. ... There's nothing like it."
In her career, Wilkinson is 89-5 with 63 shutouts, 15 no-hitters, 11 perfect games and 1,079 strikeouts in 575 innings. That leaves her on pace to break the state career records for wins (106) and shutouts (79) and with a shot to do the same for perfect games (17) and strikeouts (1,455). That's despite the fact that the pitching rubber was moved back to 43 feet from 40 after her freshman season.
Sherrill credits Wilkinson's success partly to the mental fortitude instilled in her by her father Robby, a former college baseball player, and partly to her riseball.
Wilkinson also throws a change-up and a couple of different breaking pitches but identifies the rise as her best offering.
Traveling at more than 60 miles per hour from a short distance, the rise explodes upward at the last moment. Most high school players are unable to pick up the spin of the ball in time and swing under it, explained Jim Blanton, head coach of Hibriten, a conference foe of Alexander Central.
"Men who played baseball or slow-pitch softball even, they don't understand how hard a riseball is to hit," Blanton said. "A riseball leaving the hand, it looks so fat. ... (Wilkinson's riseball) moves so much, the chances of you getting on top of it aren’t very good."
The fact that the rise is only part of Wilkinson's repertoire makes it that much more difficult to combat.
"There’s no way to prepare for it," Blanton said. "If you try to dial in on one pitch, she can kill you with two or three others."
As deadly as she is the circle, Wilkinson is entirely unassuming outside of it, always deflecting credit to her teammates. Her coach describes her as someone who is "very humble, very down to earth,” but also has assumed a leadership role on the team.
"She's so soft-spoken," Sherrill said, "but when she talks, everyone listens."