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Monday, October 19, 2015

Toni Paisley Steps Into Justin's World

Though she may not have taken the hill for a Power Five program or even a regular postseason contender, Toni Paisley is without a doubt one of the finest pitchers in the game's history. Having suited up for East Carolina in the late 2000s/early 2010s, she may be one of the top "names you don't know, but should".

(c) ECU Athletics
From day one of her time in Greenville, Paisley made her impact on the Pirates program. In her freshman campaign of 2007, she tallied a 1.57 ERA with a 21-5 record and 211 strikeouts in just under two hundred innings in the circle. After an injury prematurely ended her sophomore campaign and she took a redshirt, Paisley went on to record statistics that got increasingly better as time went on.

A 1.22 ERA in her RS sophomore season became 1.09 the year following and a 1.03 in her senior season. Her strikeout numbers went up as well, recording no fewer than forty more each season over that year-to-year period. For her career, opponents hit just .174 against her in the 1,088 innings she took the circle.

Paisley's dominance in the circle -which included multiple no-hitters and perfect games across the course of her career - earned her a trophy case full of awards. In 2009, she shared the honor of Conference USA's Female Athlete of the Year. Twice an NFCA all-Region nominee, she earned All-American honors in her junior campaign and was the C-USA Pitcher of the Year two years in a row, from 2009-2010.

As her collegiate career came to a close, Paisley's name sat atop no fewer than five Conference USA records, categories that included victories and strikeouts. Following the close of her career as a Pirate, Paisley was a top-ten draft pick to the National Pro Fastpitch league, where she played for the Akron Racers in 2011 and posted a .750 winning percentage. Now a private pitching coach, continue reading to learn more about her career and see her thoughts on some of her career's highlights and greatest moments.


Justin’s World: How did you get started playing softball? When did you realize that playing ball wasn’t just something you enjoyed doing, but something that you were exceptionally skilled at?
Toni Paisley: I initially started playing coed tee ball.  My parents had to drag me out of the car for the first practice because I was so nervous! Once I got out there, it was hard to get me away. After tee ball, I joined our local rec ball league "heartwell" and started in the 8u division.  I had a blast playing in the regular season and all-stars. I remember playing a little bit of every position, including catcher! I didn't start pitching until the 10u division.  I don't know if I can say that I had an "aha" moment where I knew I was skilled at softball.  I just enjoyed playing it so much and I was extremely competitive, so it showed on the field that I was excelling and doing well. 

Justin’s World: After a brief start to the season in 2008, you suffered a season-ending injury. Tell me what it was like to have to sit out practically a full year, especially so early in your career, and how you were able to get through that and come out even stronger – and an even better pitcher – afterwards.
Toni Paisley: My injury was a pretty terrible experience, both mentally and physically. It’s definitely not something you prepare for or want as an athlete. In 2007 I was sent home for Christmas break, as usual, with a workout packet for pitching. My workouts were larger than normal but I was ready to tackle them so I could be ready for the 2008 season. I'm not sure if it was fatigue, pitching too much, too little or what; but I lost my mechanics and began to hit my hip really bad on every delivery! I immediately called my head coach and she told me to take a break and that she would check it out upon returning. When I got back, we couldn't figure out why I was hitting so hard on every single pitch. We took videos, broke down my entire motion and changed mechanics. The most frustrating part about my injury was that I was still able to throw great pitches and strikeout hitters, but the pain was getting worse and I was even developing contusions on my hip. I'll never forget the game that I had to pull myself from. We were playing our final game in the series against UCF and I believe it was in the 3rd or 4th inning. I was throwing great and we were winning, but the pain was unbearable.  My fingers were tingling, elbow was on fire and it felt like I had a knife going through my forearm - that was the end. The MRI showed a partial tear in my UCL and a stress fracture in my forearm. I could deal with the fact of having an injury and having to go through rehab - what I couldn't deal with was having teammates and a coaching staff that said I was not injured. I was told by coaches that the injury was in my head and quite of few of my close teammates turned their back on me.  A couple of my teammates told me that they didn't know who I was anymore and that if I didn't want to play, I shouldn't be there.  Everyone just couldn't understand how I could still throw well and be injured at the same time. That was my mental breaking point; I wasn't sure if I would ever return to ECU after being questioned on an extremely painful injury that prevented me from doing what I loved - pitching. 
          I stayed around through my injury and worked hard in the bullpen with one of our younger pitchers. I spent most of my time catching her and doing extra conditioning workouts. At the end of the season, I told my coaches I was not returning. They were completely shocked by how I felt and had a long conversation with me. I listened to everything they had to say, we both cried, and I decided to return. The summer of 2008 was full of REHAB. Every single day of summer, I made sure to do my rehab exercises to strengthen all the muscles around my elbow. When I came back in the fall, I literally started from the bottom all over. I was barely allowed to do wrist flicks!  It was a crazy and scary feeling starting to pitch again. My first few actual pitches, I began to hit my hip again! I thought that I wasn't going to be able to overcome this at times but I just trusted the rehab and believed that somehow I could stop hitting my hip. It wasn't until I went to my old pitching coach, Richard Macarthur, that we found part of the problem. I was bending my elbow too much in my arm swing and it was causing me to smack right into my hip every pitch!! Thank goodness he noticed it because it saved my career. I still hit my hip every once in a while but it wasn't causing any type of bruising or pain. I learned a lot throughout this injury, mentally and physically, but I definitely pushed through and came out on top. I learned more about my motion in a few months then I had my entire career. I believe that is why I rebounded so well and became an even better pitcher. 

Justin’s World: Was there a player or players that you modeled your pitching style or on-field attitude after? A role model, if you will?
Toni Paisley: I was really funny as a kid with that question.  I never wanted to say that I had a role model. I used to tell people I didn't have one. I wanted to be my own athlete, my own person. I know deep down inside I could have easily answered the question but I was so stubborn!! Looking back, I loved watching Lisa Fernandez because she pitched and played the field. I liked her competitiveness; that would be as close as I could get to an answer now.

Justin’s World: Who was the toughest opponent that you ever faced?
Toni Paisley: This is a tough question. I've faced a ton of great teams and players, but there are a couple that really stand out. Conference USA speaking, it would definitely be Houston. They were always phenomenal hitters, 1 through 9.  In every three game series, I'm pretty positive they would hit me hard one game and then I always shut them down for one game.  Player-speaking, I'll never forget how hard I had to work to get this left handed batter named Tiffany [Lane, class of ’11] out on UCF.  She had speed, power and short game. As a pitcher, it was incredibly tough to figure her out and kept me on my toes every at bat! I've faced a lot of other amazing opponents but those two I had to face every year and I will never forget. 

Justin’s World: Let me take you back to 2007 for just a minute… you throw a perfect game. Next time you come out, you throw a no-hitter. Take me through what you remember of those two days, what went through your mind after that second game; did if occur to you that “hey, I just did something incredible”?
Toni Paisley: I remember my freshman year very clearly. I had a really tough time in my first few appearances. I even called my mom and told her ‘I don't think I can pitch on this level’! I couldn't believe that I was saying that, but I just couldn't get into a good groove.  I had to learn how to get batters out all over again.  I was trying too hard to be perfect and I wasn't performing like my normal self.  We worked really hard in the bullpen and changed my focus to no longer striking out hitters but just getting ground outs and fly outs.  Once I started performing better and gained my confidence back, I finally started striking out hitters again and shutting teams down. When I threw those two great games back to back, I wasn't thinking that I did something incredible. I was actually thinking - I'm normal again! I found my groove and was able to take control on the mound finally. 

Justin’s World: What is your favorite moment or memory from your career?
Toni Paisley: My favorite moment was beating Texas on their home field 1-0 at regionals. The crowd was really against us because it was their home turf. It was such a close game, a pitcher’s duel. We scored when one of our great hitters, Marina [Gusman-Brown], hit a solo homerun! The win knocked them out of the tournament and we had to watch their seniors walk off the field for the last time. It was really emotional; I even teared up for them.

Justin’s World: What do you hope people remember when they hear the name “Toni Paisley” in the future?
Toni Paisley: I hope when they hear my name, they think of a competitor. Someone who hated losing more than the love of winning. I tried to be as fearless as possible and wanted to take everyone down.

Justin’s World: Tell me how you first heard about the National Pro Fastpitch league, and when you decided that pro softball was something you might like to pursue. Do you still follow the league & teams?
Toni Paisley: I'm still a little disappointed in how the NPF turned out for me. In my senior year of college, I started thinking that this was the end because I had never even heard of the NPF. I had no idea that there was a pro league!! My coach asked me at one point if I wanted to continue to play because other coaches were asking her; I said yes but had no idea what she was talking about. The night I got drafted was a total shock because I didn't even know of the league or the draft.  I really wish it was something I could have prepared for and been really excited for. I received a text message from my coach saying congrats on making it and that I was on the Akron Racers.  I looked up 'Akron Racers' and that was the first time I found out there was a pro league in the US.  I had really mixed emotions about it and was getting home sick.  I talked to the manager a lot and expressed my concerns.  I decided to turn down my contract based on missing home and that the salary would not support me in the real world.  After going home for a couple months I received a call from the manager. She was hoping I would change my mind and join the Racers for the second half of the season.  I decided to go for it even though I hadn't touched a ball in a couple months. I wasn't expecting to pitch; I was told coming out would be more for getting to know the team for the next season.  I was in for a big surprise though as they needed another pitcher in the rotation as soon as I arrived.  I ended up surviving and threw some good innings and some rough ones! I had one great game and was so shocked because I was so "off" compared to the end of my college career.  If I could go back, I would have joined right from the beginning.  I would have had a much better experience and I would have been in great game-ready shape.  I still see updates from the league and I see a lot of the players doing some really great things.  For most players in the NPF have to be a professional athlete and maintain another career for a salary to support them, and that's tough!! Hopefully one day softball players will get the respect and salary they deserve for being a professional athlete.  Other sports can continue to play as a career; softball deserves that as well. 

Justin’s World: What do you miss the most about playing softball?
Toni Paisley: I miss competing. I miss having so much fire to shut down other teams. I miss being able to throw shutouts and chase records. It was so much fun pitching shutouts- that was always my priority. Later in my career, I always had a blast calculating how many more strikeouts I needed per game to break the record. I will always miss those moments!

Justin’s World: Tell me what you’ve been up to since your playing career ended! Both in “real” life and how you’re still involved with softball.
Toni Paisley: When my career was officially over, I started giving pitching lessons.  It came natural and after doing a few lessons I realized how much I really loved helping these girls! I have a great following now for "Paisley’s Pitching" and I'm having so much fun with all my pitchers.  I get to watch them go to college now and chase their dreams. I've also had a baby!! Well, he's not a baby anymore. He's almost two and he's quite stubborn and active; sounds familiar!

Justin’s World: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Toni Paisley: My senior year, I was told by my coach to be "selfish." You might think that’s definitely odd and not what you're normally told as an athlete.  We are taught to be team players and work with each other. Being selfish, though, was actually the best pitching advice I ever received! I teach all my pitchers to be selfish now, but it's not what you think.  Being selfish on the mound is actually a great way to give back to your team.  I realized that the more selfish I was with getting outs and strikeouts, I was actually helping out my team! If I could work my butt off and get 12 strikeouts in a game, then my defense behind me doesn't have to catch every ball! Now, there are plenty of games where the defense ends up making all the outs, but it doesn't mean the pitcher didn't try her hardest to shut everyone down. I knew that by being selfish on the mound, I was actually really helping out my team and being a team player. 

Justin’s World: What would you tell a young softball player that dreams to walk where you’ve walked one day?
Toni Paisley: I would tell a pitcher that she CAN be fearless and shut everyone down.  There's always another at bat, another out to be made.  Just because she got the best of you one time, doesn't mean it has to happen again. 

Justin’s World: My signature question: If you could take three things to a deserted island for an undetermined period of time, what would you take? Boats and phones are off-limits.

Toni Paisley: I would take my family, my running shoes and my camera. 

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