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Virginia Tech softball ace Keely Rochard one of the nation's best pitchers
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Virginia Tech softball ace Keely Rochard one of the nation's best pitchers

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Keely Rochard has a cosmetology license.

But doing someone’s hair and nails are not her only skills.

She’s pretty good with a softball in her hand, too.

The fourth-year junior is once again the ace of the 15th-ranked Virginia Tech softball team (25-6, 16-6 ACC) — not that she cares about her glittery statistics.

“I try to spin the ball as best I can,” she said. “But … if a game’s over and we win, I don’t care about anything else. I don’t care if I give up 10 hits or two hits or one hit or no hits. If we win, it doesn’t matter.”

She ranks second in Division I in strikeouts (197) and third in wins (19). She is tied for the Division I lead in shutouts (10).

“She’s one of the best pitchers in the country,” said ACC Network and ESPN analyst Amanda Scarborough, a former Texas A&M ace.

Rochard’s right arm gets plenty of work. Tech will start Rochard three times in a four-game ACC series.

“Her stamina and her endurance and strength are unparalleled,” Scarborough said. “The fact that she can throw so many complete games multiple times a week, you just don’t see that very often anymore. That’s also what makes her so special, is that she can go against the same team multiple times and still shut them down.”

‘Very determined’

Rochard grew up in Williamsburg. She verbally committed to Virginia Tech the summer after her ninth-grade year, picking the Hokies over Georgia Tech and Elon.

She led Warhill High School to the Group 3A state title as a junior and senior as she stymied foes with her riseball.

“She’s a very determined, smart kid who thinks about the game, … remembers what batters have done previously,” said Williamsburg Starz travel-ball coach and ex-Warhill coach Tom Bunn, who coached Rochard in both high school and travel ball. “Always even-keeled and always confident.”

In Rochard’s final high school game, she outdueled fellow Tech signee Jordan Dail of Brookville in a 1-0, 18-inning marathon in the 2017 Group 3A final in Salem. Dail transferred from Tech to Oregon prior to the 2019 season.

Rochard did not experience instant success in college. Carrie Eberle was the Tech ace in 2018, when Rochard was a freshman.

Rochard was just 5-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 69 1/3 innings for the Hokies that season.

“Let’s just say I’m glad we have a COVID year so I can make up for that year,” said Rochard, referring to the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted 2020 Division I winter-sports athletes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

She stuck to curveballs as a Tech freshman because her riseball wasn’t working.

Why was the riseball not effective?

“I didn’t have any instruction,” she said.

Tech went 23-30 in 2018, when Scot Thomas was the head coach and former Tech pitching great Angela Tincher O’Brien was the pitching coach.

Thomas, who steered the Hokies to 794 wins in his 23 years at the school, was fired after the 2018 season.

He was replaced by former Kennesaw State coach Pete D’Amour, who brought pitching coach Doug Gillis with him from Kennesaw State.

Rochard credits Gillis for helping her regain command of her riseball.

“He worked on my mechanics,” she said. “He saw things that were wrong and he knew how to fix them.”

“She didn’t throw the riseball really good, but she didn’t throw it bad. We just had to fix it and say, ‘Use that more,’” Gillis said.

Gills also told her to throw her change-up more, and tweaked her windup.

The changes worked. Rochard went 22-3 with a 1.81 ERA and 193 strikeouts in 162 2/3 innings as a sophomore.

Eberle and Rochard gave Tech a potent 1-2 pitching punch in 2019, with Eberle earning ACC pitcher of the year honors and Rochard joining her on the All-ACC first team. The Hokies made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015.

“It just proved that we had talent and that these coaches know what they’re doing,” Rochard said.

Eberle transferred to Oklahoma State after that season, but that did not turn out to be a problem.

‘Tremendous’ riseball

Rochard flourished as Tech’s ace last season. The Hokies were 21-4 overall and 3-0 in ACC play when the season came to a sudden halt last March because of the pandemic.

The 5-foot-8 Rochard went 15-3 with a 1.52 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 120 innings, earning first-team All-America honors. She led Division I in wins and strikeouts and tied for the Division I lead in shutouts (seven).

“I had to work extra hard, make fewer mistakes, because I knew that they had a lot of film on me,” she said.

Rochard, who already stymied hitters with her riseball and change-up, became more comfortable throwing her dropball last year.

D’Amour said her dropball is better this year, and her velocity has also increased.

Rochard is 19-3 with 197 strikeouts and 37 walks in 133 innings this season. She ranks second in the ACC in ERA (1.05).

She throws 64-67 mph. But that is not what makes the riseball her best pitch.

“It’s her spin and her movement. She gets so many swings and misses because of her deception with that spin,” Scarborough said. “Her riseball is tremendous. … She can throw it right above the knee to kind of that mid-range, letter high, and then also extend the zone to get hitters to chase maybe at the eyes.”

Rochard’s second-best pitch is her change-up.

“A pitch that starts at the knees and then breaks down,” Scarborough said. “She has that north movement with her riseball and that south movement with her change-up. It’s really hard for a hitter to go up against because you can’t anticipate which way it’s going to go and what speed it’s going to be.”

She might feature a different pitch in each of her three starts in a series.

Last month against Pittsburgh, she pitched the first four innings of a 9-0, five-inning win on a Friday; pitched a one-hitter and struck out 19 in a 5-0 win in the second game of a Saturday doubleheader; and pitched another one-hitter with 19 strikeouts in a 2-0 win on a Sunday.

“She’s a strong kid,” said D’Amour, whose team is in third place in the ACC. “She oftentimes pitches better the third day than the first day, and that’s really rare.”

“She’s in really good physical shape,” Gillis said. “She takes the weight room and the conditioning seriously.”

Rochard ranks fifth nationally in innings.

“I honestly am not sore after the weekends,” she said. “We get weekly massages. I’m constantly doing stuff to take care of my body.”

Rochard said she has not yet decided if she will return to Tech next season for her extra year of eligibility.

“All I have left are electives, so I could take them all in the summer, [or] I could drag it out,” she said.

She already has a post-softball career in mind.

Rochard, who got a cosmetology license when she was in high school, hopes to eventually have her own salon where she can do hair and nails.

“My mom’s a hairdresser, so I’ve grown up around it,” she said. “I’m a perfectionist, so I really like … doing nails and hair. I get to make it as good as I want.”

Just like when she pitches.

“After each pitch, I already know what I want to throw next and where I want to throw it,” she said.

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Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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