BERKELEY – Cal pitcher Katie Sutherland-Finch was in third grade when she decided it was time for her father to start waking up a little earlier in the morning.
Unbeknownst to Lloyd Sutherland-Finch, his daughter had approached the principal at Brookwood Elementary in Hillsboro, Oregon and asked if she could have access to the school gymnasium at 6 a.m. each morning to work on her pitching.
When she was granted permission, she informed her catcher – and father – that for now on the two had an ongoing appointment before school each day.
“She came back and said, ‘It’s all worked out, Dad’,” Lloyd said. “I told my wife that it was going to be short-lived. No third-grader is going to get up day after day and practice at 6 a.m. She would knock on my door and have a pot of coffee ready and have already had breakfast.
“I thought it would last a few weeks. After a few weeks, I thought it would last a few months. After a few months, I realized she’s not going to stop doing it.”
No, she wasn’t. Nothing was going to stop Katie Sutherland-Finch from becoming the best pitcher she could be, especially since everyone was telling her she was too short. Sutherland-Finch was determined to demonstrate that size does not equal speed when it comes to throwing a softball, and she spent a good portion of her childhood exploring a variety of techniques to confirm her hypothesis.
The early-morning workouts ended up lasting the remainder of her elementary school career, and they actually didn’t start in the gym. Before Katie and her father left the house each day, she would “warm up” by pushing the car slightly uphill, an idea she came up with while researching ways to improve her leg strength. Sutherland-Finch also took to throwing walnuts instead of softballs because it improved her accuracy and increased her awareness of how she used her core and arm whip.
“I’m a softball nerd,” Katie said. “I was told that it would be difficult to play big-time softball because of my size. So I believed I had to be more perfect than everybody. I had to find a way to use my body in the most efficient and productive way possible, so the mental side of softball and mechanics has always been really important.”
When Katie was 11, her pitching coach told her to try to become more aware of her mechanics. So one night she and Lloyd went out to the garage and filmed her talking herself through her pitching motion. The video can be found on YouTube (nearly 1,000 views).
“I went step by step through what I was thinking,” Katie said. “It was a lot of fun.”
As Katie got older and colleges started calling, many recruiters compared her to former Cal All-American Jocelyn Forest, who led the Bears to the school’s first NCAA women’s championship in 2002. Like Sutherland-Finch, Forest is 5-foot-4 but still was able to throw as hard as pitchers much bigger in stature.
After Katie’s freshman year at Glencoe High School, Lloyd tracked down Forest by telephone simply to see if she would be amenable to having a phone conversation with his daughter. The two have been working together ever since.
“It’s not uncommon for me to get a call from a dad saying how fantastic their daughter is,” Forest said. “But then he sent me video of her, and as soon as he told me that people are telling her that she isn’t going to be great because of her size, that piqued my interest. I talked to Katie on the phone and I really liked her. We started exchanging videos and the kid threw heat. I thought this kid really has something here.”
Sutherland-Finch began by simply talking on the phone and exchanging videos with Forest, but soon Lloyd was driving his daughter down to meet with Forest in person in Santa Cruz, where she works as a strength and conditioning coach.
Sutherland-Finch said she first saw Forest pitch while watching a highlight video of Cal’s run to the Women’s College World Series title in 2002.
“She was so passionate,” Sutherland-Finch said. “She was a huge reason why I really started thinking I can do this. I only saw Jocelyn a couple times, but I remember one time she told me that size is never going to be an issue. That was the first time someone other than my parents said that to me. I completely believe that she is what made me fully believe in myself.”
Another thing Sutherland-Finch noticed about the 2002 highlight video is that Forest and the Bears won the championship game against Arizona’s Jennie Finch, regarded arguably as the best college pitcher ever. At one time, when Katie started becoming a household name in high school softball circles in Oregon, there were rumors going around that she and Jennie Finch were cousins.
“I’d joke around with people that I’m really not supposed to discuss it,” Sutherland-Finch said.
Truth be told, Katie and Jennie Finch don’t look much like cousins. Jennie Finch is 6-0 and looks like she should throw hard. Katie’s pitch speed is uncommon for someone her size.
“Katie is an alpha. When she walks into a room, she wants to know who is the best, what’s the benchmark,” Lloyd said. “People would always say there are these caps with her, and she never really believed it. She always thought she was capable of doing what anybody else was doing.”