Back: Prairie Wolves flamethrower moves from wheelchair to mound
Alysia Wittmaack (’11) of Lincoln looks like an accountant. Watch her study for her CPA exam and you might not guess you were looking at an athlete of any caliber. But ask any batter in the GPAC. She does just fine, thank you very much. Then take a look at the NWU softball record books and what wasn’t so evident watching her study will become crystal clear. That same arm taking vigorous notes in the library doubles as a torch on the softball diamond.
“The first thing I learned about Alysia was never, ever doubt her,” said NWU Head Softball Coach Lance Kingery.
Wittmaack became one of the two starting pitchers in the Prairie Wolves rotation her first season. She won eight games and struck out 118 batters. As a sophomore, she shattered NWU’s single season strikeout record with 192, besting the previous record by 67.
Then came the historic 2010 season that made Wittmaack a known commodity throughout the conference. She set the school record with 18 victories and became the career strikeout leader with her senior season yet to be played. Conference coaches voted her the GPAC pitcher of the year, and she helped lead the Prairie Wolves to a second place finish in the league.
Expectations for Wittmaack and the 2011 Prairie Wolves softball team were at an all-time high in the preseason. NWU was picked to finish second in the GPAC, had all but two returning starters and the top returning pitcher in the league.
“Going into the season my expectations were to build on the success of last season and maintain my title of GPAC pitcher of the year,” Witt-maack explained. “I prepared myself by giving it all at practices and lifting (weights) three times a week at 6:15 a.m. with the rest of the team.”
Then came a preseason practice in February. Players had just taken team and individual photos and were moving onto their normal preseason practice. Wittmaack released a pitch and immediately froze—a crippling pain jolting through her back.
“The very instant I was hurt the only thing going through my mind was the thought, ‘Will I be able to walk again?’” Wittmaack remembered.
It would be a week or two before she could take tentative steps. “I started to come to the realization that… my softball career was over.”
Coach Kingery had to rethink his strategy for the season. “I didn’t know the extent of the injury initially, but once I did, we knew that our other three pitchers were throwing well. So we began building up confidence in those players. We knew offensively we were pretty good, so it was our job to give the young pitchers a chance to win games.”
At the season-opening tournament in Dallas, Texas, Wittmaack sat in a wheelchair in the dugout. She tried to do her part by cheering everyone on and giving motivation between innings. Unable to provide the power and precision of her pitches, she could still lead like a senior. Kingery saw her presence in the dugout helping her teammates with their passion, tenacity and desire to win.
NWU started the 2011 season with a 10-0 record, the best start in school history. While the Prairie Wolves were winning, Wittmaack was striving to get back on the mound. Despite what doctors and physical therapists had told her, she was determined to do everything she could, even if a return to play never panned out.
“I didn’t want to look back and have any regrets. I didn’t want to think, ‘If I had just done this or that maybe I would have been able to get back,’” said Wittmaack.
Come back she did in April. With the game in command, a loud roar was heard from the crowd when it was announced that the new pitcher was Alysia Wittmaack. She pitched the last two innings and struck out the game’s final four batters. The next day, Wittmaack threw three more innings and recorded a save.
Morningside College had won the past two GPAC titles and was picked to win the 2011 title. The Mustangs came to Lincoln and were upset by the Prairie Wolves, 1-0, in the first half of the doubleheader. In game two, Morningside pulled ahead early 6-0. They appeared in complete command, hitting the ball all over University Place Park. Enter the accountant. Wittmaack controlled the hitters and sparked NWU to a rally and a 7-6 victory to get her first win of the year and allow the Prairie Wolves to sweep the reigning conference champs.
The real test was whether the recovering Wittmaack could start and finish a game. GPAC leader Concordia was next on the schedule for NWU. Wittmaack started game two and retired the first 16 batters of the game. A perfect game was within her sight. An infield grounder in the final inning was the only flaw in her six-strikeout performance.
No question. Wittmaack was back. “I think my confidence is what has helped me be successful. Every pitch I throw is with the intent to strike the batter out. I would also never have these successes without my teammates, as they are the ones who do all the work. I just deliver the pitch and they take it from there.”
The Prairie Wolves finished 28-9, placing second in the GPAC tournament.
Today, Wittmaack has replaced her accuracy in the strike zone with a precision of another sort. She is a tax associate with McGladrey, one of the largest accounting firms in the world. Her 3.93 GPA in accounting helped her land the job. But she knows that her experience as a student-athlete also makes her a valuable player on her new team.
Kingery, the all-time wins leader at NWU, has many great memories with his talented pitcher. “In my professional opinion, Alysia is the best pitcher to ever walk through the doors at Nebraska Wesleyan University, and there have been some mighty good ones before her. But none combines her academic achievement, athletic achievement and personal character.”