Turner Turns Heads When She Pitches

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is something about a player of the year.

Watch her play, and you just know.

Maybe it's an aura. Maybe it's that people stop what they're doing to take a look. But you know.

And that's the way it was this season with Michelle Turner, the Times Orange County edition's player of the year.

The junior from Kennedy High brought attention to herself just by showing up, because it was obvious what happened when she didn't.

Kennedy lost.

But when Turner played, the Fighting Irish was one of the top teams around, because it had the best pitcher around.

Kennedy finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in Orange County, behind Foothill, which was recognized as one of the top programs in the country. Foothill has some of the county's top players at nearly every position. Kennedy had Michelle Turner.

On a 22-7 team that struggled to score runs, Turner gave her opponents little reprieve. She had a 0.12 earned-run average, won 18 games and lost only three, two by 1-0 scores in extra innings. Her last victory of the season was a 23-inning shutout against Valencia that sent Kennedy to the Southern Section Division III semifinals. There, she lost in 11 innings to the eventual champion, Whittier La Serna, which breezed in the finals to win the championship.

"She's very composed and can hit her spots," said Kennedy's assistant coach, Jami Shannon, who has watched county softball for the past 26 years as a player and coach. "She's still maturing, polishing her game. If she continues to improve like she did from last season to this season, I think she can be in that group of pitchers like Amanda Freed and Natalie King."

Freed, from Pacifica, is at UCLA; King, from Fountain Valley, is at Texas. It's heady company, and the comparison to Freed, The Times' Orange County Player of the Year in 1998, means a lot.

"I looked up to Amanda Freed," Turner said. "The older I get, people say, 'You remind me so much of her when you're out there.' It's a really neat feeling. She was like, my hero."

More slight than stout, Turner and Freed are seemingly cut from the same mold, and they produced similar results.

In 172 2/3 innings, Turner struck out 225 and walked only five. She pitched two perfect games and three no-hitters. In a game against Capistrano Valley, she threw only five pitches that weren't called strikes.

"I've coached two NCAA pitchers of the year in high school, Cheryl Longeway and Tiffany Boyd, and even as a junior, Michelle is by far the most focused pitcher I've ever coached," said Kennedy's head coach, Sue Hall. "You have no question that she's going to get the job done."

Turner's performances this season weren't unexpected. She made the all-county team last season, when she walked only eight in 170 innings and compiled a 16-5 record with a 0.53 ERA.

There was no shortage of possible candidates for player of the year--Courtney Fossatti and Caitlin Lowe of Foothill, Alicia Owen of Loara and Kristen Dedmon of Esperanza. All had stellar seasons for outstanding teams.

But nowhere else was a single player's value to a team demonstrated more so than at Kennedy.

Doctors never defined the illness that gave Turner a high fever and uncontrollable cough that kept her sidelined for two weeks. She did not pitch the first three games in Empire League play, and Kennedy lost each of them. With no margin for error to make the playoffs, Turner pitched the last seven league games and the Fighting Irish were perfect--and ended the season in a four-way tie for first place.

Even though her delivery was smooth, her season was not. She contemplated quitting after returning from her illness, she said, because of resentment she felt from some of her teammates. Her success and dominance brought attention, and that added to Kennedy's internal problems. It was easy to think of Kennedy as a one-person team. "I just tried to forget about it when the game started," Turner said. "It was pretty much the hardest year I've ever had."

Hall said Turner "handled it real well."

"This team had chemistry problems from Day 1," Hall said. "It's not like we don't have a great team, but Michelle's the lure, and when every single article was a headline with Turner, it was like, 'Our name's not Kennedy, it's Turner.' And I think it was overwhelming.

"Michelle didn't do anything to bring attention to herself on her own."

Turner gave credit to teammates she said were responsible for her success. "A pitcher's only as good as her defense, because routine plays can turn into disaster," she said. Her catcher, sophomore Brooke Porter, deserved some credit too. Without a quality catcher, a pitcher can't take advantage of her full arsenal, which, in Turner's case, was a rise, drop-curve, drop-screwball and changeup.

"[Our team] did pretty good," Turner said, "which is surprising considering all the drama we had to deal with."

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