KERNERSVILLE — How good of a softball player is Kierston Deal? The East Forsyth pitcher is the No. 1 recruit in the country in the Class of 2022, according to one website.
But you don’t have to take ExtraInningSoftball.com’s word for it. When Deal decided to reopen her recruitment last summer, a number of the nation’s top programs jumped into the picture, including Texas and Arkansas.
Those were some head-turning names for a high school player, but in college softball, there’s Oklahoma and then there’s everyone else. So when Sooners coach Patty Gasso called Deal, shortly after her program won its fifth NCAA title, it was as if Nick Saban had reached out.
“We spent over an hour-and-a-half on the phone just talking and getting to know each other,” Deal says of that first conversation. “My mom was just kind of star-struck sitting beside me like, ‘Oh, my God. You’re talking to Patty Gasso!’ It was a very surreal moment.
“I’m used to seeing you on TV and seeing how you interact with the girls and not actually talking to you on the phone,” Deal says she thought. “It was kind of my fangirl moment, but then my nerves settled down and I was able to have a good conversation with her.”
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So good that Deal eventually decided to flip her commitment to Oklahoma in September 2021.
“At first, I just wanted to go to any school that was Division I,” she says. “Then, continuing to put in the work and going to bigger tournaments and camps and being able to compete with those kinds of girls gave me the confidence to think, ‘I can be here and I can hang with the big dogs.’ ”
Now, Kierston Deal is not only hanging with them, she is the big dog.
'This is who I am, this is what I do'
At this time a year ago, Deal was known as one of the best high school softball pitchers in North Carolina, but she wasn’t on the radar nationally.
Deal certainly didn’t. She’s the same intensely competitive left-hander she was during a junior season in which she led the Eagles to the NCHSAA Class 4-A championship series. Along the way, she struck out 292 batters in 136 innings and compiled a 0.64 ERA.
“It’s her ability to compete,” says Ben McKinney, Deal’s coach at East Forsyth. “She hates to lose, and she will do whatever it takes to put herself and her team in a position to win. You can just see when she gets in the zone it’s almost like, ‘I dare anyone to try to get a hit off me.’ ”
On the travel ball circuit last summer, the nation’s top talent evaluators and coaches got a chance to see Deal showcase her talents and her competitiveness in a way they couldn’t the previous summer at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Deal had her coming-out party while was pitching for the Mojo – Fisher elite softball team out of Tennessee.
“That was my first time on the big stage, going to Colorado and California with the Mojo team,” Deal says. “Almost everyone knew who Mojo was, but I kind of liked having the underdog feeling of no one knowing me because I could show everybody this is who I am, this is what I do.”
At the Premier Girls Fastpitch (PGF) 16U nationals in Huntington Beach, Calif., Deal’s Tennessee-based team rolled through pool play, but lost to the Texas-based Hotshots in eight innings in a matchup of unbeaten teams. Another loss would eliminate Mojo from contention for the Premier division championship of the prestigious tournament.
“We had to come back the next morning and play three games,” Deal says. “We had to play one team, and then won that game and had to beat a team twice. I started that one and we got like a 6-0 lead, so I came out. The next game, I started and went eight innings and it was 1-0 and we won that game.
“I was like, ‘OK, let’s go, y’all! One more game until the championship.’ I could just feel it. I was ready to pitch again.”
After a few innings, Mojo’s starter in that game wasn’t ready to pitch anymore.
She “was coming down with something,” says Deal, 17. “I’ll never forget, it was like the second inning and I was in the dugout and she walked some batters. Our coach was like, ‘Do you want to win it? KD, are you ready?’ I told him I was good. He said, ‘Do you want to win a national title?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. I want to play for one.’ And we won to get to the final. I won two games back-to-back, and it was one of the most amazing feelings to make it there.”
Deal’s team eventually lost to the Hotshots in a rematch for the title, but college coaches took notice of the 5-foot-7 pitcher from Winston-Salem. Deal had been committed to South Carolina since December 2020, but her performance at PGF nationals changed everything.
“High school ball is very important, but it doesn’t always give you the competition you need to excel at an Oklahoma or even a mid-level college,” says McKinney, who is also the head coach of the Firecrackers travel program. “You have to put the time in on a travel ball team to get the best competition.
“She started out with me and played in a few tournaments a few years ago, and she found out she could excel at that level, so she moved on to a team that plays at the highest level. She’s been very successful there, and that’s given her the confidence as well as the understanding of how to pitch to elite hitters.”
The right stuff
Billy “Chief” Gerald has been Deal’s private pitching coach since she was 9 years old and helped build the powerhouse North Davidson program as an assistant to the late Mike Lambros. Gerald’s pupils include former Forbush and UNCG pitcher Hannah Angel and two current college pitching coaches, Campbell’s Danielle Glosson (North Davidson/Southern Illinois) and Georgia’s Chelsea Wilkinson (Alexander Central/Georgia).
When Deal began working with Gerald, “I saw she had a lot of natural athletic ability. She had the talent you need to be cultivated. I always look at the attitude of the kid. She was very coachable, very into it. She wanted to learn, and she practiced a lot on her own.”
A lot of young pitchers have talent and work at the game of softball, but when Deal was 11 or 12, Gerald saw that she was quickly developing into a potentially elite pitcher.
“I was teaching her how to manipulate the ball at that time … just trying to teach her to be a master of the ball and make it move more so than trying to throw it fast every time,” Gerald says. “She throws in the low- to mid-60s, and that’s her effective speed. She can throw faster than that, but she doesn’t need to because then she’s throwing through her breaks. … People say, ‘She’s only throwing 62 or 63.’ But if you throw it harder than that, the ball doesn’t break as hard.”
When the softball comes out of Deal’s left hand, you can hear it better than you can see it. At the softball distance of 43 feet from the pitching rubber to home plate (17 feet, 6 inches closer than in baseball), the sound of the laces cutting through the air is almost a sizzle before it smacks into catcher Madison McCarty’s glove. The movement – upward or downward, in or out – is almost otherworldly.
Deal’s repertoire includes that fastball, “a sharp breaking ball that comes in on right-handed batters,” Gerald says, “and she’s more likely to throw the rise ball up and in to you as her out pitch. If she wants to strike you out, she’ll throw the ball up and in to right-handed batters.”
It will be Deal’s ability to throw off-speed pitches for strikes that will determine how successful she is at Oklahoma, which is 48-1 heading into this week’s Big 12 Conference tournament in Oklahoma City.
“She has off-speed, but she realizes – and it’s been a work in progress – that she has to get her off-speed pitches to be a little bit more off-speed. That’s where she’s still improving,” says McKinney, whose East Forsyth team is 20-1 heading into the NCHSAA Class 4-A playoff opener Tuesday night at home against West Cabarrus (7-12). “She’s also getting better every time she steps in the circle at hitting spots.”
When a softball pitcher reaches the level Deal has, the next step is refining her skills. McKinney says he’s seen her become better and better at locating pitches and knowing when not to throw too good a pitch.
“Early in the season, we were talking about a pitch finishing two balls off the plate,” the Eagles’ coach says. “Sometimes what happens is the ball goes over the plate and finishes two balls off. We want a pitch to get the corner of the plate and finish two or three balls off the plate. Those types of adjustments that she’s able to make in-game now is something she didn’t have last year.”
Next year at Oklahoma, Deal will be working not only with Gasso, but with one of the nation’s premier college pitching coaches, Jen Rocha. Gerald and Rocha talk frequently about the left-hander, and the Sooners assistant has told him she wants Deal “to work on her off-speed curve. She wants an off-speed pitch that’s developed by the time Kierston gets to Oklahoma. We work to that end all the time.”
McCarty, Deal’s catcher this season at East Forsyth, has already seen her battery mate frustrate good high school hitters.
“Some of them are just kind of down on themselves because they swung and missed at a ball that moved,” says the Eagles junior. “Sometimes they’re expecting a 60-miles-an-hour pitch and they didn’t get that and swung out of their shoes, and they’re like, ‘Dang it!’ That reaction is what makes it fun to be a catcher.”
Next season, Deal and Leander, Texas, left-hander S.J. Guerin, also a top-20 recruit, will join an Oklahoma pitching staff that features freshman right-hander Jordy Bahl, who is 21-1 with a 0.95 ERA.
“People say things like, ‘Is she good enough to go to Oklahoma?’ ” Gerald says of Deal. “She’s good enough for them to teach her to be that good. With Jen teaching, her learning won’t stop.”
'I'm still the same person'
Deal believes she’s learned from the biggest disappointment of her softball career, East Forsyth’s loss to Wilmington Hoggard in last year’s NCHSAA Class 4-A championship series. “I still think about it quite a bit,” she says.
East dropped the first game of the best-of-three series 1-0, won the second 1-0 in 10 innings and dropped the deciding contest 6-5.
“It was a dogfight, with one-to-nothing games to a one-run game in the bottom of the seventh,” Deal says. “It was always back-and-forth, but I love those games. I live for those types of games! … A hit was like a home run that game.”
McKinney says “that loss has stuck with me all year, and the same with KD. Every time we’d see each other we’d talk about it. We were one ground ball away from winning a state championship. Hoggard got the ground ball before we did. That’s how close we were.
“Now, we’ve been in that position before. We know what it feels like. We know what it’s like to come up short. That has motivated Kierston like I never thought it could motivate her. She has that look in her eyes that nothing is going to stop us.”
But Deal also knows when to dial down the intensity and have fun, and she understands that she’s already a role model to the young pitchers Gerald works with at his training facility in Clemmons.
“I’ve called her and said, ‘I’ve got this kid who’s dying to meet you,’ ” the softball pitching guru says. “These little kids, she means so much to them and she always gives them time. She has left her home and driven over to my place just to meet a kid.”
That’s just Kierston Deal being herself. She may be the top softball recruit in the country, but she’s still “K.D.” at East Forsyth.
“I have a high standard for myself and then everyone has one for me, but I guess mine is always a lot higher … ” she says. “Dealing with that, I’ve had my family, my teammates and my coaches telling me I’m still the same person I was before the rankings.”
Contact Joe Sirera at 336-373-7034, and follow @JoeSireraSports on Twitter.