The first varsity pitch Jayme Eilers threw for Sterling wasn’t exactly how she envisioned.
During her windup, the ball slipped out of her right hand and went backward. The embarrassing moment is immortalized in a framed picture given to her at the end of her freshman season.
Eilers didn’t throw many balls after the infamous moment.
She developed into one of Illinois’ top high school pitchers, helping Sterling continue its current streaks of NIB-12 titles (10) and regional titles (8). The Western Carolina recruit went 25-3 with a 1.34 earned run average, 238 strikeouts to just 19 walks, a 0.795 WHIP, and a .185 batting average against this spring.
Eilers was named first-team NIB-12 West in all 4 years at Sterling, a first-team all-state selection by Illinois Coaches Association in her final 3 seasons, the NIB-12 West MVP as a sophomore, and co-NIB-12 West MVP as both a junior and senior.
She can add another award to the long list: for the second year in a row, Eilers is Sauk Valley Media’s Player of the Year.
A deeper dive into Eilers’ numbers in the circle further demonstrate her dominance. She threw a strike 72.8% of the time (1,872 strikes, 701 balls), and didn’t walk a batter in her final five games for the Golden Warriors.
Eilers averaged 14.5 pitches per inning, retiring batters in order in 79 of her 177 1/3 innings. Only six batters were hit by one of Eilers’ pitches, and runners advanced just twice on wild pitches.
Standing 5-foot-6, Eilers doesn’t exactly stand out physically like many Division I pitchers. The secret to her success instead lies in the spin and command of her four pitches.
“She’s not going to overpower you,” Sterling coach Becki Edmondson said. “You’re not going to know how good she is until you stand behind the plate and watch her pitches move.”
Eilers and teammate Gretchen Gould followed similar paths in their softball careers at Sterling.
Both were team managers as fifth graders. Just 2 weeks into their freshman seasons, Edmondson called both up to the varsity squad.
Gould found a spot in the lineup and in the field at first base, while Eilers settled into her role as a reliever. She went 7-3 with 124 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.57 in 107 innings, and was 24-for-24 in save opportunities in relief of Lexy Staples.
Eilers was 11-5 with 170 strikeouts and a 1.15 ERA in 133 innings as a sophomore, all while spliting time with Staples and Maddie Corwell.
Eilers developed into Sterling’s ace as a junior, going 23-3 with a single-season school record 258 strikeouts and a 0.95 ERA in 169 2/3 innings. If an opponent managed to figure out her spin, Edmondson would switch to the hard-throwing Corwell.
More importantly to Eilers, Sterling went 113-25 over her 4 years. She finished her career 66-14 with a microscopic ERA of 1.23, and owns the school record with a whopping 790 strikeouts.
“We’ve been blessed with great pitching for several years,” Edmondson said. “I never thought Jayme threw a bad game all year. That’s great for the younger girls to look up to, and it’s let our offense off the hook numerous times.”
Eilers had a chance to showcase her talents at the PGF 2018 Nationals 18U Premier tournament with the Illinois Chill 18U Gold last summer in Huntington Beach, California. She pitched against girls like Gatorade High School Player of the Year Megan Faraimo, who played a crucial role in UCLA’s national championship run earlier this month.
Eilers called it “an eye-opening experience” that allowed her to be at her best months later.
Opposing teams came into this season with the scouting report that Eilers could spin the ball as well as anybody. What opponents didn’t count on is even more spin, which led to an uptick in velocity.
“Over the summer, I worked on spinning the ball more and throwing harder,” Eilers said. “I also started to lift [weights] more to get stronger.”
Another noticeable adjustment Eilers made was developing a rapport with junior catcher Meghan Sechrest. The two were never teammates growing up, as Sechrest moved to Sterling from Fort Wayne, Indiana, before her sophomore year.
Playing on the one of the same travel teams – Peoria Sluggers – as Eilers (and classmate Olivia Edmondson) made the transition easy on both the pitcher and catcher.
“Jayme made my life easy. She hits her spots, so she’s not hard to catch by any means,” Sechrest said. “I hadn’t seen spin like hers, but it wasn’t that hard of an adjustment.”
Becki Edmondson, a two-time state champion for Farmington and Division I pitcher at Western Illinois, calls pitches from the dugout. Sterling players wear wristbands with play cards that go along with the veteran coach’s system.
The first two numbers Edmondson calls out are what pitch is being thrown. The next two numbers are the location (height and side of the plate). There are no changing what she calls, which allowed Eilers to focus on executing her four pitches to the best of her ability.
Eilers’ fastball does not move, so she instead developed the riseball as her go-to pitch. She grips the pitch the same as her screwball – her middle and ring finger on the laces, index finger halfway between her middle finger and thumb – but tilts her right shoulder back before releasing to get the rising motion.
Riseballs are often times a pitcher’s slowest pitch – but it’s Eilers’ fastest pitch, topping out at 63 mph.
“My ball has always had a natural rise to it,” she said. “I think it’s because of the spin, but I don’t know how to make it stop. It’s muscle memory.”
Increased command of the pitch allowed Eilers to throw a low rise that crosses the plate in the top third of the strike zone, and a normal high rise that finishes out of the zone. The result is more popouts and flyouts as opposed to groundouts.
“We had to be a little more intricate this year about mixing pitches,” Edmondson said. “Since she has such late movement, a lot of hitters can’t recognize it’s a riseball until it’s too late.”
Throwing riseballs comes with the risk of being more susceptible to the home run. Eilers, however, has come to live with the results.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really had an issue with [allowing home runs],” Eilers said. “There’s been some times where I’ve been mad, but if you can hit a riseball out of the park, good for you.”
Both Edmondson and Eilers know they’re in the catbird seat when an opposing coach yells “Lay off the high stuff!”
“Since she’s been on varsity for 4 years, everybody and their brother knows she’s a riseball pitcher,” Edmondson said. “That’s where we can mix in the screwball, changeup and curveball once hitters start laying off her riseball.”
Since it’s the same grip as her riseball, Eilers can throw her screwball nearly the same speed, sitting in the lower 60s. She comes straight to the plate with her throwing shoulder instead of tilting back for the riseball.
Eilers’ screwball has similar properties to a baseball pitcher’s curveball/slider and two-seam fastball. Batters can see a small circle spinning at a high rate to recognize the pitch, but righties often reach and lefties often get jammed due to the run from its two-seam action.
“I use my screwball as my fastball,” Eilers said. “It’s my starter pitch to get ahead. It looks like a fastball out of my hand, but the spin makes batters swing over or under the ball.”
Brad Eilers told his youngest daughter she had to learn to command a fastball and changeup before she could throw a curveball.
By age 10, the future star was throwing her signature breaking pitch.
Jayme Eilers’ curveball is the only pitch she throws low in the zone, thanks to her middle three fingers being spread out on top of the ball. It’s movement is equivalent to that of a right-handed slider in baseball, staying on nearly the same horizontal plane instead of downward 12-to-6 action.
At 60 mph, Eilers’ curveball is devastating against almost all right-handed hitters, and hard to barrel up for lefties. Depending on the home-plate umpire, she can use it as a strikeout pitch on the outside corner or as a chase pitch that hitters wave at with a rare chance of contact.
“That’s something I really worked on early in the season,” Eilers said. “I’d have batters step in and throw it to righties and lefties so I was comfortable with it.”
Eilers threw her curveball more this spring than she ever had before thanks to her increased control. Moline reached the Class 4A supersectionals this season, but wasn’t able to figure out the Warriors’ ace in a 5-2 home loss on April 8.
“We knew Moline was going to be an aggressive team,” Edmondson said, “so she threw almost all curveballs. Against teams that aren’t familiar with her, we’ll start by throwing inside and work to the outside.”
Eilers’ least-used pitch sits in the mid-50s. Trust in her circle-change grip was gradually developed by using it more early in the season to work out the kinks.
“It honestly depended on the day,” Eilers said. “Sometimes I would have to make it work. With me being a riseball pitcher, some batters aren’t used to the ball dropping.”
“If she’s not comfortable with something or there’s a flaw we can expose in another team, we’ll change something,” Sechrest added. “But she’s pretty consistent regardless of what changes.”
During a postseason practice, Edmondson wanted Eilers to go live against the Warriors’ varsity hitters – a lineup that finished with a team batting average of .424 on the season.
Normally, Eilers brings a bucket of balls out to the circle. This time, she thought one ball was sufficient.
“Don’t you need more than one ball?,” Edmondson asked.
“No, they’re not going to hit me,” Eilers replied.
“She wasn’t being snotty about it,” Edmondson said. “They just know how Jayme pitches – and she knows all of their out pitches.”
Olivia Edmondson was the only batter to get a hit off Eilers that day, a single up the middle.
“We made it a habit to face more live pitching in practice,” Eilers said. “We even had batters turn around and tell Megan, ‘Don’t give me the rise’ or ‘Throw one down the middle.’”
Eilers has a specific warm-up she swears by before she first steps into the circle. She goes in front of the circle to start, finding her release point before going behind the rubber to the top of the circle. She then does a run-up and releases the ball from the rubber before starting an inning.
“When I get into a groove, I like to work fast,” Eilers said. “This year, I wanted to slow down a little but still have the same level of control.”
Before entering the circle, Eilers grabs a small handful of dirt and tosses it behind her. She then wipes off her hand to avoid an illegal pitch, touches her fingers on the grip-enhancing towel she keeps in her back pocket, heeds Edmondson’s call from the dugout, and fires.
“It’s part of my routine,” Eilers said. “Plus, it helps slow me down. I get anxious sometimes, so when I grab the dirt and throw it back, it calms me. I don’t even think about it.
“I also like to talk to myself out in the circle. In my head, I’m a little cocky. I tell myself that there’s a reason why I have the stats and awards.”
Sterling finished the season 27-4, its last win spearheaded by its ace. Eilers struck out 11 in a two-out shutout against Kaneland in the Genoa-Kingston Sectional semifinals.
The 2-1 loss to eventual state champion Sycamore in the sectional finals, however, still does not sit well with Eilers, her teammates, or the Warriors’ coaches.
Eilers vows to not let one setback – like that first varsity pitch going backward – define her. She’s focused on moving forward in the next step in her career, determined to mow down Division I lineups like she did as a Golden Warrior.
“Western Carolina is getting a very competitive pitcher who’s going to work hard, be coachable, and get along with all her teammates,” Edmondson said. “She’ll fight to earn whatever she gets.”
Brothers: Kody (23), Brady (12)
Sister: Jordyn (22)
Club teams: Illinois Chill Gold 18U & Peoria Sluggers 18U
College: Western Carolina
Season stats: 25-3, 1.34 ERA, 238 strikeouts, 19 walks, 0.795 WHIP, .185 batting average against, 177 1/3 innings
Career record: 66-14
Career ERA: 1.23
FYI: Illinois Coaches Association Class 3A first-team all-state in her sophomore, junior & senior seasons. …NIB-12 West MVP as a sophomore, co-NIB-12 West MVP as a junior & senior. …Career ERA of 1.23. …Sterling’s all-time leader in strikeouts (790) and strikeouts in a single season (258).