McKenzie Surface doesn't mind the pressure. By pitching in nearly every inning this season, she learned to handle it.
"I've just been playing for so long, there's a mode you get in when you play," Surface said. "I obviously play for the love of the game, and when you get into those high-pressure moments, the adrenaline gets pumping, and it helps you get on a roll. It's a great feeling."
Surface enjoyed many great feelings, at the expense of others, during a season in which the right-handed pitcher went 16-6 with a 1.60 ERA to go with 168 strikeouts, fourth among Colorado pitchers in all classes.
And at the plate, Surface batted .353 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs in helping the Thunder defend their Pikes Peak Athletic Conference title and reach the state tournament for the fourth consecutive season.Of the team's 1402/3 innings during the 2013 season, Surface toed the rubber in all but one, throwing an astounding 2,150 pitches.
"I like the opportunity to play that often," Surface said. "It helped me as a player, mentally and physically. I knew I had to be focused every pitch of every game. At the same time, I knew my team would be behind me, so that took some of that pressure off."
Discovery Canyon swept PPAC play, winning all seven games in keeping the league trophy at its far northeastern Colorado Springs campus.
The defining moment of the season came at home Sept. 25 against Air Academy.
With the Thunder trailing 3-1 with two outs in the sixth inning, Surface tied the game with a dramatic two-run home run to left-center field. Then, she found herself in another white-knuckle scenario in the eighth inning, at the plate with the bases loaded in a tie game.
She responded with a walkoff grand slam, clinching the league title and a gem of a pitching performance in which she allowed only two hits and zero earned runs.
"I definitely think that was my biggest highlight," Surface said of her game-winning grand slam. "That was such a high-intensity game. Our team got behind but never quit. I am so grateful to have the team that we had. They always seemed to make that extra play."
And that flair for the dramatic earned admiration from her coach.
"McKenzie Surface is a big-time player, a clutch player," Thunder coach Tanya Ramsay said after the Air Academy game. "She's definitely someone a coach wants on their team. I'm just excited that she's on our team."
By taking the role of everyday pitcher, other teams faced a formidable task, even if they knew what was coming.
"She's an excellent pitcher, and you have to prepare to adjust to the many speeds she throws with," Palmer Ridge coach Randy Gillette said. "The thing about her is how she controls her pitches. You have to be prepared for all locations. And she has a good eye for the ball as a batter, too."