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Jefferson Forest ace Emma Lemley ready for Virginia Tech
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Jefferson Forest ace Emma Lemley ready for Virginia Tech

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FOREST — Emma Lemley verbally committed to Virginia Tech back when she was in the eighth grade, before the NCAA put an end to such early commitments.

Lemley is now in the final month of her Jefferson Forest High School softball career. She is enjoying an impressive senior season.

And in the fall, five years after she picked the Hokies and three years after Virginia Tech changed coaches, the right-hander will get to practice with her new Tech teammates.

“It’s been a long road, a very long road, but I’m glad that I’m almost at the finish line,” Lemley said. “I love Virginia Tech. … We’ve gone through a coaching change and an NCAA rule change. … I’m really lucky it has stayed somewhere I wanted to be.”

Lemley’s riseball has been clocked at 65-67 mph. She also throws a curveball and change-up.

Tech coach Pete D’Amour said Lemley will see action in the circle for the Hokies next spring.

“I have high expectations for her,” D’Amour said. “She’ll pitch next year, and she will be better in the spring [of 2022] than she is right now. She’s got enough right now to compete, and I think she’s going to be a handful by the time the [2022] season rolls around.”

Tom Bunn, who coaches Lemley on the Williamsburg Starz travel-ball team, said Lemley reminds him of former Starz pitcher and current Hokies ace Keely Rochard.

“They’re both very strong and can log a lot of innings,” Bunn said. “They throw exactly the same repertoire.

“Their demeanor is very similar — very calm, stoic almost. She reminds me a lot of Keely, not to put too much on her shoulders. She’s really special.”

Bunn predicted Lemley will be a “useful” freshman for Tech.

“That riseball’s pretty legit and she throws really hard,” Bunn said. “She works so hard to get better.”

Lemley began pitching when she was 8 years old. Her father, Bryan Lemley, has always served as her pitching coach.

“We do get into our arguments at times,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s nice to have my dad as my pitching coach because he knows me better than anyone else. He knows when to push me.”

Lemley began pitching for the Starz when she was in the seventh grade.

She accepted a scholarship offer from then-Hokies coach Scot Thomas in the fall of 2016. She threw her fastball 61-62 mph at the time.

Lemley loved the Tech campus and wanted to be an engineer. She also chose the school because she loved Thomas and then-Hokies pitching coach Angela Tincher O’Brien, who soon taught Lemley how to throw a riseball at a camp.

There was also a trend at the time of softball players committing to colleges before the 11th grade, so Lemley felt she should commit early as well.

“I’m really lucky it worked out for me,” said Lemley, who plans to major in civil engineering. “For a lot of people, it doesn’t work out and they decommit.”

To end such early offers and commitments, the NCAA Division I Council passed rules in 2018 to end recruiting talk between softball coaches and prospects until players are high school juniors.

“It’s a good thing they changed the rules,” Lemley said. “It gives them a chance to be kids and have fun playing the sport, rather than go to all these showcases and worry about getting seen and worry about having to commit before anyone else.”

As a high school freshman and sophomore, Lemley split time in the J.F. circle with Meghan O’Neil, who now pitches for Connecticut. Lemley threw more curveballs than riseballs those years.

Lemley was 7-2 with a 1.07 ERA and 138 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings as a freshman in 2018. She also batted .410, seeing action at second base when O’Neil was pitching.

In May 2018, Thomas was fired as Tech’s coach. D’Amour was hired to replace him.

Lemley was determined to impress the new Tech staff.

“I worked hard to make sure I stayed where I wanted to be,” she said.

Lemley made the 2019 All-Timesland first team as an at-large pick as a sophomore, when she was 8-4 with a 0.82 ERA, 160 strikeouts and six walks in 84 2/3 innings. She also hit .394 with 11 doubles and five homers, and played third base when O’Neil was pitching.

In the summer of 2019, she got some pointers from Tech pitching coach Doug Gillis at camps and improved the spin on her riseball. Her velocity also increased. The riseball became her best pitch, and she shined for her travel-ball team.

“She was good when I first saw her [in the summer of 2018]; I didn’t have any qualms about her coming here. But she just kept getting better and better,” D’Amour said. “The [2019] summer, she was off-the-charts good.”

Because of the NCAA rule change, Lemley needed to verbally commit to Virginia Tech again when she became a high school junior. Georgia Tech and Drexel were also interested in her. But in September 2019, D’Amour asked her if she still wanted to be a Hokie, and Lemley made another verbal commitment. She signed last fall.

D’Amour said Lemley is “really similar” to Rochard, an All-American who has yet to inform D’Amour if she will be returning to Tech for her extra year of eligibility.

“Her riseball is firm, it’s hard,” D’Amour said of Lemley. “She gets a lot of swings and misses.”

The 2020 high school season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Lemley has been able to display her improved riseball this spring. She has pitched every inning for Jefferson Forest (9-3 overall, 9-3 Seminole District) this season.

The 5-foot-6 Lemley is 9-3 with a 0.36 ERA, 191 strikeouts and three walks in 77 innings.

“[The riseball] does have good movement on it,” said Jefferson Forest coach Gary Harris, whose fourth-seeded Cavaliers will host Pulaski County in the Region 4D quarterfinals Monday. “When … it jumps, it’s very tough to hit.”

Lemley has pitched one perfect game and two no-hitters this season. She had a pair of 20-strikeout games.

“You have a lot of control of the game in pitching. … I like having that control,” she said. “If you’re under that pressure and you succeed, it’s one of the best feelings. I’ve always somehow performed better under pressure.”

Lemley is hitting .500 with four doubles, six homers, nine stolen bases, 16 runs and 16 RBIs.

D’Amour said she will get the chance to prove herself as a hitter at Tech.

Lemley, who graduated from Jefferson Forest last month, will be on full scholarship at Tech. She said she feels ready to pitch in college.

“I’m really excited,” 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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