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KING OF THE HILL

The team is poised to make a run at its first championship game appearance since 1986, when Fountain Valley ran into a buzz saw named Lisa Fernandez.

The pitcher, Natalie King, is poised to make an assault on opposing batters, hoping to become a buzz saw herself.

King, a wisp of a figure who was all arms and legs during her first three seasons, is bigger, stronger and more committed than ever to winning. In the process, she might establish herself as the county’s dominant pitcher.

Opponents batted only .108 last season against King, who came on strong at the end of the season to set the stage for her senior year. She pitched 76 innings without giving up a run before allowing two in a semifinal loss to Moreno Valley Valley View, the eventual Southern Section Division I champion.

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Along with Tia Bollinger, the pinpoint-accurate pitcher at Mater Dei, the 6-foot King stands tall as one of the county’s two best pitchers.

On the softball field, all one needs to know about King comes from one of her opponents, Phelan Wright, an all-county shortstop from Los Alamitos. Wright’s book on King: “Watch her curve and her low outside pitches. And swing at the first pitch you have a shot at, because once you look at the first strike, then she’s going to mess with you.”

There’s more, certainly. King will proffer an array of junk pitches--she’ll rarely throw the ball down the middle--and her pitches move a lot. Never mind that with all those junk pitches comes, perhaps, the county’s fastest pitches.

And there’s more bad news for batters this season.

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“She is throwing a lot harder this year,” said Cary Baker, Fountain Valley’s coach. “It’s obvious.”

Mater Dei’s Marissa Young, who struck out 235 in 125 2/3 innings and is now at Michigan, and Capistrano Valley Christian’s Lauren Capriotti, who struck out 264 in 147 innings, were the only pitchers in Orange County who struck out more batters last season than King.

But with Colleen Burdick recovering from shoulder surgery, King will get most of her team’s starts. Burdick was a Times’ Orange County second-team pick last season. She went 12-3 with a 0.57 earned-run average, and King, a first-teamer, went 12-5 with a 0.46 ERA.

“I’ve never had any player more determined than her,” said Baker, who began coaching in 1982. “I told her, ‘If we don’t have Colleen to throw for us, you’re going to be needed to throw more games.’ She said, ‘If you need it, I can throw all the games.’ ”

One reason is King’s commitment to training. She didn’t play basketball this winter, meaning she was able to work out at IntenseCity three times a week instead of two, pitched with a coach three nights a week, and played club ball on weekends until the season began. She has already adopted the workouts used by Texas, the college she will attend.

“It’s really important to get into that college mindset,” said King, who liked Texas partly because its coach, Connie Clark, is a former pitcher from Cal State Fullerton. “It’s helped me a lot knowing what college is going to be like, rather than showing up and not knowing what’s going on. I’m starting it now so that I’m not in for any big surprises, so that it’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing.”

When she began working out during her sophomore year, King weighed 130 pounds; she is up to 145, her shoulders are noticeably bigger, her legs stronger.

“It’s changed me a lot,” King said. “I was really skinny, really little.”

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But there is a part of her that hasn’t changed. All one needs to know about King, the person, comes from a Sunset League coach who has faced King the last three seasons, Marina’s Shelly Luth.

“She’s the whole package, a team player, nice person, a great player, respectful--all the things I like,” Luth said. “I really respect her, and I like seeing kids who work as hard as she does have the successes they deserve.”

Luth also raves about the variety of pitches King has. King throws a screwball, rise, curve, drop, changeup, fastball, curve-drop, curve-rise, screwball-rise. And, King said, “a lot of different speeds for each of those pitches.” Her best pitch is the curve, and she loves the low outside pitch.

One factor that could be critical to Fountain Valley’s success will be the ability of its catcher, either Inez Vasquez or Kristin Crowder, to handle King’s low pitches with comparable efficiency to Baron alumna Rocky Staniorski, who is at San Jose State this season. If they can’t catch the low pitch with runners on base, then King’s talent might go to waste.

“I talked to Natalie about that,” Baker said. “She said she had no problems with either catcher, as far as a receiver.”

King is also comfortable with her choice for a post-college career. She would like to become a special education teacher, the same job held by Baker. She is an aide in one of Baker’s classes.

“She’s real good with the kids too,” Baker said. “She likes them, doesn’t look down on them, she’s helpful.”

Baker said that whether it’s dealing with a student with a severe stutter, or another who is a messy eater, “it doesn’t affect Natalie.

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“She’s patient enough to wait for the kid to finish his sentence, or she’ll feed them. She wants to help others.”

It’s a win-win situation, though.

“I think I can make a difference with them,” King said. “They’ve taught me a lot, and I hope I’ve taught them a lot. They’ve taught me to have an appreciation for things I take for granted.”


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