Rick Elsasser would sit on a bucket, his back to the garage wall, while daughter Dana threw pitch after pitch.
Sometimes Dana would pretend to be former Nebraska pitcher Peaches James, an African-American pitcher just like her. Or maybe her other idol, Team USA star Jennie Finch.
“People don't understand the amount of work it takes,” Elsasser said. “I always want to be the best in everything I do. You don't learn that in a week of pitching. It takes years.”
Elsasser was 9 years old when, after watching softball on TV, she told her dad she wanted to be a pitcher. She loved how they were always the center of attention.
Rick was apprehensive. He had a basketball background. But Dana kept asking about pitching softballs. Finally, Rick found some pitching tapes and checked out lots of books from the library.
‘‘Pitching for Dummies,” Dana said.
Rick taught his daughter how to pitch from scratch.
And he did a good job. Dana has since developed into the University of Nebraska at Omaha's top pitcher. On Tuesday, she earned her fourth Great West Conference pitcher of the week award.
The sophomore right-hander has a 0.80 ERA, which would be the lowest in country if not for UNO still being in the transition period to Division I. Her career ERA stands at 0.93, tied for first in school history.
It started with those countless hours of throwing in the backyard. Dana had to learn the way her arms worked and how to use her fingertips. Her dad sat in front of the garage wall, which made it easier to corral wild pitches.
Dana wanted to know everything at once and would grow frustrated at how long it took. Some days when she couldn't master her control or she wasn't throwing hard enough, she'd walk away crying, wanting to quit.
“And the next day we'd be out there again,” she said. “I'd get my little diva attitude on the mound. I'd pout and whine and he wasn't having it.”
By the time she was 14, Dana said she knew something was there. She could throw rockets, and her dad had the bruises to prove it.
One problem: There was no high school softball team in Hershey, Neb., where Dana grew up as the only African-American in the town of about 700 people.
After having three children, the Elsassers decided to adopt. They brought Dana home from San Antonio and she blossomed into a three-sport athlete. Three more girls followed.
Dana started playing for the North Platte Sensations, a summer team. She dreamed of playing college softball.
It's hard to get noticed when you live far from the big city, she said. So she sent a letter to UNO coach Jeanne Scarpello, saying she was 5-foot-5 and could throw 65 miles an hour.
“You don't see that very often,” Scarpello said. “You think 5-9, 5-10 to throw that velocity.”
Dana would have been taller, but she developed scoliosis when she was in sixth grade. A 72-degree curve in her spine caused so much pain that she had to have rods inserted in her spine.
But she still had arms that spanned more than six feet, and with her power, she started getting noticed. Shortly after Scarpello received Dana's letter, she got a call from former Omaha Marian coach and longtime umpire Bob Knudson. She got an email from Dave Peterson, the father of Maverick Tonya Peterson and the coach of the Nebraska Fury.
“It was enough people, and with this letter, I thought we better take a look,” Scarpello said. “I called (Nebraska coach) Rhonda Revelle and we discussed her a little bit.”
Scarpello watched Dana pitch in Omaha, but she was injured, so she and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings for another chance. The game ended up being a forfeit, so they had Dana warmup.
“We gunned her at 64, 65,” Scarpello said. “It was good enough to definitely make an offer.”
Elsasser left home shortly after her high school graduation, planning to play summer ball for the Fury to help get ready for college. It was tough, she said. She didn't know anyone and it was an adjustment moving from Hershey to Omaha.
“We ended up winning a national championship,” she said. “It was an awesome summer. Our team was amazing.”
When her freshman season started at UNO, Elsasser played behind All-Americans Beth Haley and Lindsey Slocum. Both girls were gracious about helping her learn the ropes.
When she did get into a game, she often would get called for illegal pitches because of a crow hop when she threw the ball.
“Last summer, my dad and I worked on it,” Elsasser said. “My dad and I fixed it in probably three weeks. One hundred and twenty pitches a day, trying to get my control back with my foot level.”
This spring, it was finally her time.
“The torch has been handed off to you,” Scarpello had told Elssaser. “It's time for this to be your team.”
Elsasser responded with a 13-7 record heading into the Mavericks' final regular-season doubleheader on Wednesday at Drake. She's limited opponents to a .179 average and has eight shutouts.
After giving up 11 earned runs in her first five starts, she's has given up four earned runs in her last 15.
A dropball is Elsasser's main weapon.
“She's able to keep it low and hit her spot,” Scarpello said. “She's a hard worker. She always wants to find something to make herself better.”
Rick Elsasser is the principal at McDaid Elementary in North Platte and a golf coach, so he's been able to see only four games this season. He'll come with wife Donna, who Dana said doesn't know much about softball but is her head cheerleader, and the younger girls.
“I'm very proud of her, both my wife and I,” Rick said. “We think she's a quality young lady in a lot of ways, not just sports.”
They talk often. Her dad will watch the live stats on the Internet and she'll call him after games and practices for input.
He's always there when she needs him.
“I just want to thank him for believing in me,” Dana said. “There is no way I would be there without him.”
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