NEW PALESTINE — Elisha Barker never feels alone inside the pitcher’s circle.
If an inkling of isolation ever does creep in, the New Palestine senior ace knows she only needs to turn in any direction to rediscover her comfort zone. The same has held true since she was an underclassmen closer, and will once again as she toes the rubber for games this season.
“I think all of the five seniors take the leadership equally, so it’s not just upon one person’s shoulders,” Barker said. “We have leaders in the infield, the outfield and the pitcher’s circle. It’s spread out equally. I don’t feel like I have much to do with (wins and losses). It’s just everyone helping with it, together.”
Barker instead concentrates on setting the pace for the Dragons, who captured their 11th sectional title overall last spring with a 24-3 record. A first-year No. 1 starter for head coach Ed Marcum’s yearly state contenders, Barker embraced the role as a junior to finish with a 16-3 record and a 1.52 ERA.
Story continues below gallery
With 64 strikeouts in 96.2 innings pitched, Barker doesn’t possess the skills to “blow it by” hitters, Marcum remarked. But what she lacks in velocity, she more than makes up for in meticulous perception, adaptability and resolve.
“When I’m in the circle I’m in my mind, visualizing what I want to happen before I do it. If I execute right, I induce ground balls, but I could never do it without the fielders behind me,” Barker said. “A big part of my softball game has been the mental side. If you have a strong mental game, you can stay in almost any situation. If your mental game isn’t that strong, no matter how strong your physical game is, you’re not going to be in it.”
Barker has been unflappable since she secured a varsity spot as a freshman. The team’s primary closer her first two seasons behind former ace Kaylin McMurray, Barker posted 10 saves and 10 wins three years ago and had a pair of saves with nine wins as a sophomore through 84.1 innings.
“The thing that impressed me the most was freshman year when I put her into all sorts of tough situations; she never wavered,” Marcum said. “I knew then, mentally, for a freshman to come in and do what she was able to do, I was onto something for the next four years.”
Unshakable in pressure moments, Barker’s analytical instincts have been the secret to her success through 35 career wins versus six losses in 25 games started. A spot pitcher by necessity, she thrives by finding her zone where she bombards hitters with drops, change-ups, curveballs, screwballs and a rise fastball.
“I like all of my movement pitches pretty equally,” Barker said. “I’m definitely more movement, not speed.”
Much like her career aspiration of mechanical engineering, she loves dissecting the game down to it’s smallest denominator even if it’s unpredictable at times.
“It’s a big game trying to figure out where the umpire wants it, and then having to execute and having enough control to put it there,” Barker remarked on her approach to the strike zone. “It’s a game within a game, which I think is fun.”
Picking up the sport as a 4-year-old, the enjoyment hasn’t faded despite two heartbreaking postseason losses the past two years to the eventual state champions.
In 2015, the Dragons lost to Class 4A Center Grove 8-7 in the sectional finals before the Trojans marched to a state title. Last spring, New Palestine, which dropped down to Class 3A, reached the regional, but they fell short 7-1 against Lebanon. Barker, who took the loss, scored the Dragons lone run in the finale — a solo home run.
“I thought Elisha battled really well, but their main hitters did a nice job of being patient against her,” Marcum remarked on his team’s loss last May. “The thing I like about her, is whether she just gave up a home run or retired seven in a row, her demeanor doesn’t change. That’s a great quality for a pitcher.”
It’s not surprising to Marcum either, who watched Barker climb the New Palestine youth league before joining the Indy Diamond Chix. Barker has been with the Indiana Shockwaves Gold the past three offseasons, facing elite Division I talent throughout, which has honed her pitch placement along with her technique and decisiveness from 43 feet.
“You have to definitely step up your game and always be on it. You can’t miss a pitch, otherwise it goes over the fence,” Barker said.
As a hitter, Barker can do some damage in her own right, blasting four home runs as a junior and hitting .365 after posting a career-best .393 the year prior. Her bat will come into play this season, Marcum said, along with several others up and down the program’s power-hitting lineup.
The Dragons have five seniors returning this spring. Madison Whitaker, a Wright State recruit, hit .459 last year, while Abby Davis, who signed with Dayton, carried a .360 average through 17 games last year. Mary Crumlin, a Marian University recruit, drove in 33 runs and hit .333 as a junior for the Dragons.
Junior infielder Ashley Prange, an Ohio State recruit, represents the program’s youthful depth, hitting .371 as a sophomore. Like Barker, Prange is en route to being a four-year varsity starter.
“We talk to our players about this all the time. Softball is a team game played by individuals,” Marcum said. “That’s one of the most fun parts of softball, taking these individual talents and putting them together and trying to make the best team out of it.”
With Barker in the circle, Marcum knows he has a more than capable competitor on the diamond; he has an outstanding leader by example.
Set to attend the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. this fall, Barker, who spends her free time toying with drones and quad-copters on her parents’ (Greg and Lynn) five-acre lot, has big future goals.
“I did something a little different than I think most athletes do. I looked at colleges that had my major,” Barker said. “I want to be a mechanical engineer with a minor in robotics and unmanned aerial systems.
“It’s pretty specific, so I didn’t have a whole lot of colleges to choose from.”
ERAU is ranked No. 1 in her desired field, and they offer Division II softball. After contacting ERAU, Barker bridged a relationship and gained acceptance to the university and with the softball program, which she calls a “dream come true.”
Now, it’s a matter of capping her final prep campaign with what the Dragons hope can be the first state championship season since 2009.
“When (Elisha) first started, she was very young, awkward and was just trying to figure things out,” Marcum recalled. “She wasn’t the most athletic, and still isn’t, she’ll tell you that. But she was one of those kids that’s a testament to hard work. She’s always enjoyed the game and worked very hard to get better. That’s what you have to do to win.”