We didn't have a pitcher, so coaches were like, 'Hey, who wants to pitch?' And I just wanted to do it, for whatever reason, and I got hooked on it right away. —McKenna Bull
PROVO — Ever since McKenna Bull stepped inside the pitching circle for the first time she's felt right at home. It's not the type of feeling a lot of players gain instantly, given the visibility and importance a fastball softball pitcher holds — a role that isn't rivaled by any position in any sport, according to BYU softball coach Gordon Eakin.
Given all that, it takes a special type of personality and confidence to be a starting softball pitcher that doesn't resonate with most athletes.
"I often wonder why parents raise their kids to be pitchers," Eakin said, laughing. "It seems to be a bit of child cruelty because of its focus and you have to be a different breed to first want to be a fast-pitch softball pitcher, and then even more so to want to continue to be one."
Fortunately for Eakin and the BYU softball team, Bull has proven to be that special breed, and the program has benefitted greatly since she arrived in 2014 from Weber High. After proving an instant success as a freshman, she's risen to her current form, which includes a 1.23 ERA, a 29-5 record and 226 strikeouts over 199.2 innings pitched this season.
Yes, Bull is quite comfortable standing inside the pitching circle and has been since the fifth grade, when she randomly gave pitching a try for the first time.
"We didn't have a pitcher, so coaches were like, 'Hey, who wants to pitch?' And I just wanted to do it, for whatever reason, and I got hooked on it right away," Bull recalls. "I loved people chanting my name and I loved the focus being on me and all the pressure. You're a part of every play and every pitch and I just love it. Being inside the circle is the best and it's where I've always wanted to be. There's nothing better."
Bull's personality and drive led her rise to become a real talent that was recognized early on by Eakin, who offered her a scholarship. As for many athletes, the offer was validation for all her hard work through the years and her natural talent.
"Coaches started telling me that I was good enough to play in college ever since I was about 12, but I really didn't believe them," Bull said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I'm doing good, but this is just Utah softball. I don't know if I'm good enough for D-I, but turns out those coaches were right, I guess."
Bull arrived at BYU without any expectations of playing right away. The program already had a good senior pitcher whom Bull assumed she'd play behind and learn from before attempting to take the lead.
"Circumstances changed and I got most of the innings, and that's helped my career a lot," she said. "I was just thrown to the wolves, sort of, and had to be good really fast for my team. Looking back, it was really a benefit for me to get that early experience."
That freshman experience led to a breakthrough sophomore season after which Bull was named West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Year while setting BYU records for wins (34), strikeouts (256) and complete games (29.)
She posted similar numbers her junior season, her best yet until this year as a senior.
"She's had great runs in each of her years when she's been very effective, but this year, right from the start of pitching against the (top teams) we've faced, she's just been consistent and as tough as nails," Eakin said.
What's left for Bull and her team is the postseason, which is about two weeks away, with a goal of advancing past the NCAA Tournament regional round.
"I'm so sick of hearing the word, 'regional,' I just want to get past that and say the words, 'Super Regional and World Series,'" Bull said. "I think this team has a lot of potential and I think a lot of it will come from me, but also a lot of other great players that have had really great seasons."
Eakin believes Bull and the rest of his players have what it takes to make more noise in the NCAA Tournament this time around.
"We have very good players who could play for any program in the country, and I think this year it's finally culminated into a great group of seniors and we're just very good," Eakin said. "This is probably the best team I've coached at BYU, given our depth and experience."