Transfer leads retooled UCA pitching

Julia Petty
Julia Petty

Julia Petty knew early on in her recruiting journey where she wanted to end up.

In January 2023, the University of Central Arkansas softball program was the first of what was soon to be many to reach out to her to show its interest.

Shortly thereafter, the Leeds, Ala., native visited Conway for the first time to see what life could be like later that year.

While Petty says she all but made up her mind on that trip, calling her mom to rave about the visit, she didn't want to rush the process before her sophomore season at Northwest Florida State College had even begun -- something that put some teams off recruiting her further.

"I told them pretty early on that I was just gonna do the season and I would commit later," Petty said. "And they were pretty much the only school that didn't have a problem with that. A lot of them gave me a deadline or something."

But Petty stuck to her guns and played out the 2023 season, leading the Raiders to a national junior college runner-up finish. Petty posted the second-most wins in the nation with 28, held a 2.67 ERA and struck out 205 batters in 188 2/3 innings.

One week later, on a call with UCA assistant coach Kayla Lucas, Petty spontaneously committed to the Bears.

"I hadn't even planned on committing, but I just didn't want to wait any longer," she said. "I just knew this is where I was supposed to be."

The addition of Petty looks to be crucial to the success of the Bears in 2024. UCA had its most successful season in program history in 2023, led by one of the nation's premier pitching staffs of Jordan Johnson and Kayla Beaver.

But Johnson graduated and Beaver transferred to Alabama, so UCA doesn't return a single inning from last season.

After Petty, UCA's rotation has plenty of options: Kassie Rhodes, a junior who redshirted last season for UCA; junior Bailie Runner, an Oklahoma State transfer, who pitched four innings over two appearances last season; and freshmen Paityn Engemann, Reese Parker and Zoe Hardy.

"The talent is there," UCA Coach Jenny Parsons said. "We have to really do a good job of honing in on the strike zone. They're competitors, but they're also unproven.

"They're all different. They all bring something different to the table. The only one with significant innings is Julia. So there's a lot of unknowns, but I hope that's a good thing. I hope people are hungry and fired up."

Seeing the success that UCA had last season -- winning a program record 45 games, capturing the ASUN regular season and conference tournament titles and advancing to its first NCAA regional since 2015 -- just confirmed to Petty that she was making the right choice.

"That's a big part of why I came here," Petty said. "I knew this team could go far, and that's what I wanted. I wanted to be able to compete for something. I didn't want to go to a big school where I wasn't gonna win conference or compete to go to a regional."

Johnson has joined the UCA coaching staff for this season, assisting Parsons with the pitchers.

"It's super nice to have JJ with us on the staff," Petty said. "Learning from her, it's crazy. Like, it's so fun. She knows so much about softball, and it's nice to have someone our age that just got out of college. She knows how to word things the right way."

Parsons said of Johnson: "She's like another me. I've worked with her for five years. She understands what we kind of want, how we pitch to our team and to the defense. ... She does a really good job of relating to them, you know? I'm 52 and she's 22, so she's a little closer in age. She gets all the lingo I don't."

Petty followed the Bears closely last season. She watched games when she could, kept up with the team's social media accounts to celebrate wins. After watching from afar players like third baseman Kylie Griffin and outfielder Tremere Harris, the 2024 ASUN Preseason Player of the Year, Petty says it's been exciting to finally share the field with them.

"It's almost like a fangirl moment," Petty said. "Like every time Tremere's out here making a play, I just get chills because I remember a year ago, I was watching them through my phone and my mom was sending me screenshots of Twitter when they won. It's really surreal, and I'm so glad I ended up here."

Petty admitted fall scrimmages were a wake-up call to the difference in pitching to Division I hitters than what she had seen before.

Her work on location and pitch-sequencing will be put to the test for the first time that counts today as UCA opens its season against Notre Dame and North Carolina Central at the NFCA Leadoff Classic in Clearwater, Fla.

"It was a little intimidating at first coming from a JUCO to here, to a big DI, like, I was a little scared," Petty said. "The first few scrimmages, they were rough. I got hit up a little bit, but it's really just [that] I had to learn how to hit my spots a little more consistently.

"I feel like once I get a few games under my belt here, I'll be fine."

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