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Private gurus paying off for top softball pitchers

Top softball pitchers often rely on private coaches to hone their skills

George Rizer for the Boston Globe

King Philip Regional ace Meghan Rico whips through her delivery, honed by coaching legend Peter Looney, last week.

PLAINVILLE - It didn’t matter that she was at practice; Meghan Rico pitched with purpose. Her chin down and her gaze focused, the King Philip Regional High senior began her windmill delivery under the sun of a brisk spring morning.

Swooping low to the ground, the crown of her head pointed at her target, Rico uncoiled her body and sent her right arm whipping forward.

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Equal parts grace and violence, Rico’s motion is carefully choreographed, and she credits her private pitching instructor, Peter Looney, with its construction.

From the grips on her six pitches to the deliberate swooping motion that allows her 5-foot-7 frame to throw a 60-mile-per-hour fastball, Looney was behind it all, Rico said. “He helped me so much. He’s the best coach I’ve ever gone to. He made me the player I am.’’

Rico admits that she has felt lost at times this season. Looney, who built the Apponequet Regional High program into a juggernaut in the 1970s and ’80s, and then returned to the Lakeville school last spring after a long run as the pitching coach at the University of Connecticut, died in December after a four-month battle with brain cancer.

For the first time since seventh grade, Rico is without her trusted pitching guru.

“It’s hard not having him here to correct me,’’ she said. “I would go to him and somehow he knew about all of my pitches from the game before. I don’t know how he did it, but he knew everything.’’

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Thanks to Rico’s sessions with Looney, King Philip is the two-time defending Division 1 state champion. Last year, as a junior, she went 21-0 with an ERA of 0.15. She had 313 strikeouts in 144 innings. She threw two perfect games.

All the while, she tweaked and refined her mechanics with Looney’s help, driving with her father an hour to Looney’s home in Freetown, where he coached part time out of his garage.

Looney was a softball coaching legend and had hundreds of students, who became known as “Garage Girls,’’ over the years.

His relationship with Rico was particularly close. If a pitch wasn’t working, she could call him for a quick fix. He knew her motion so well that he didn’t need to see it to know what was wrong.

Like Rico, many of the area’s most dominant pitchers seek instruction from someone outside of their high schools’ coaching staffs. Oftentimes, a pitcher finds a coach before her high school career, and the relationship continues.

Private coaches are experts on mechanics, but they can be motivators, trainers, and amateur psychologists, too, serving as behind-the-scenes keys to pitchers’ successes.

Since she was 6, Milford junior ace Shannon Smith has been taking lessons from Denise Davis, founder of Planet Fastpitch in Uxbridge. Davis always knew Smith had talent - when Smith was 8 she threw as hard as most 14-year-olds - but few could have predicted the success Smith would have in high school.

As a freshman she was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. Last season, she put together a 0.94 ERA. She can now reach the upper-60s on her fastball, and she is already committed to the University of Kentucky.

Still, no one knows better than Davis that there is room for improvement in Smith’s game.

“I can just listen to her pitch - I don’t have to watch - and I can tell if there’s something off,’’ Davis said. “It’s kind of frightening. But I know the rhythm of her motion so well that there are sounds that give it away.’’

After spending countless hours together performing drills and analyzing video, Smith is thankful to be learning from someone who is so in tune with her abilities.

But their relationship isn’t all about what happens in the circle, either. Smith has grown up at Planet Fastpitch, and now coaches there herself. They know the names of each other’s pets. They celebrate birthdays. At this point, Davis said, they are like family.

“She’s seen me through my awkward phases,’’ Smith said of Davis. “We’ve been through it all together. I’m lucky to have her.’’

Hudson junior lefty Jurnee Ware credits her pitching coach Toni Cassella, a former hurler at Ohio State University, with getting her to think more about opposing hitters when she is in the circle.

When Ware recorded her 400th career strikeout while completing her first perfect game last week against Gardner, she planned to call Cassella soon afterward to share the news.

“She’s always taught me to be confident,’’ said Ware, who has been taking lessons from Cassella for six years. “The first two or three years I went to see her I was shaky with my pitches. I never wanted to throw my moving pitches. She would tell me, ‘You have to be confident. It’s not going to work if you’re not confident.’ And that’s really helped me a lot.’’

The most sought-after pitching coaches offer a wealth of knowledge about the game.

Though there are many dedicated parents out there willing to help, most do not have personal experience as windmill pitchers.

Gary Ropiak, father of Acton-Boxborough Regional senior ace Sarah Ropiak, played baseball in college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but never played fast-pitch softball.

“Maybe if I had been an underhand thrower, I could communicate some things to Sarah,’’ he said. “But I think the biggest thing is that Sarah is learning from someone who knows what it feels like - what the good things feel like, what the bad things feel like.’’

The younger Ropiak, who will play at Brown University next season, takes lessons from Robyn King at the At Bats Training Center in Boxborough, where her motion has been molded over the last six years.

To drive home what she learns in her lessons, Ropiak throws to her dad regularly.

“He’s at every lesson and almost every game,’’ said Ropiak, who has pitched close to 300 innings for teams last spring, summer, and fall. “So if something’s wrong he can help, if he remembers what Robyn’s told me.’’

Joe Rico has also been very active in his daughter’s development. Recently, he has tried to help find her a new pitching coach.

They tried one in Connecticut, two hours from their Wrentham home, but Meghan didn’t feel comfortable altering the mechanics Looney taught her.

Rico knows this season will be a challenge. Not only because teams are gunning to be the blemish on King Philip’s record, or that she has had to deal with some arm soreness, but because she will have to rely on herself to remember Looney’s lessons.

Last week, the Warriors were able to hang on for a 5-4 win over Hockomock League foe Mansfield.

“I’m not the most confident person ever,’’ Rico said after her practice session. “I’m always wondering, ‘Was this pitch OK? Was that pitch OK?’ But even if you’re not confident, you have to look confident. You have to have that mentality. Peter taught me that.’’

Rico is reassured before every game when she looks at the picture of Looney she keeps in her softball bag.

“I’m definitely playing this season for him,’’ she said.

Phil Perry can be reached at paperry27@gmail.com.

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