Jaden LaBarge served as Nixa’s designated player for half of her freshman year and most of her sophomore season. She thrived in that role, posting a .384 batting average with two home runs, 20 RBIs and a team-high 38 hits a year ago.
But heading into her junior year, LaBarge is most thankful for the 42.2 innings she logged in the center circle last season. That experience keeps her from feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of now serving as the Lady Eagles’ ace.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure,” LaBarge said. “It’s a big role to fill. It helped me that I got some varsity time in the circle. I got a feel for it. I definitely learned how to deal with situations and to forgot about the last pitch or last play.”
LaBarge compiled a 3-5 W-L record with a 7.38 ERA. Over 42.2 innings, she struck out 31 and walked 38.
The latter figure jumps out at both LaBarge and Nixa coach Matt Walker and is a focus during the Lady Eagles’ summer league games. Control issues have carried over to the summer a bit.
“Jaden has looked really good at times and not as good at times,” Walker said. “She’s still a little wild. She’s working on consistency, as far as throwing strikes. If she locates and can be around the zone, we’ll be very competitive against everyone we play. If she’s struggling to find the zone, we may have some problems. Hopefully, she steps up.”
“I think I’ve gotten better,” LaBarge added. “I think I’m getting closer to the zone. But sometimes, I have those games.”
LaBarge was in the strike zone all night and consequently dominant in a 2-1 win over Willard two weeks ago. She followed up by walking two to begin things against Republic and allowed four first-inning runs last week, before the Lady Eagles rallied to beat the Lady Tigers 5-4.
LaBarge thinks she has done her best pitching while playing for her club ball team, the 18U Lady Chiefs.
“I’ve been doing really good ‘playing up,’” said LaBarge, who is eligible to play 16U. “In travel ball, I’m seeing the same competition (as school ball varsity games). I’ve been hitting my spots with my new pitches.”
In addition to gaining experience a year ago, LaBarge picked up knowledge from Morgan Jones, who served as somewhat of a mentor while being Nixa’s No. 1 pitcher.
“Morgan was a really good pitcher and a big influence on me,” LaBarge said. “She helped me with a lot. When I struggled with my stride and release point, she helped me find that.”
LaBarge opened last season with six walks in 2.2 innings in an exhibition against Walnut Grove. She bounced back to gain the win in Nixa’s 14-10 victory against eventual Class 5 District 10 champion Camdenton and may have enjoyed her best game in a 3-1 loss to Lee’s Summit West.
“She beat Camdenton and then would struggle in a jayvee game,” Walker said. “She’s got the potential. Sometimes, she was effectively wild. One thing you can’t teach about the way she pitches is she throws hard. It’s just about being a little more consistent.”
Walker thinks LaBarge can be plenty effective with only two pitches.
“Pitchers nowadays want to throw five pitches,” he said. “She’s developing and working on her changeup. She’ll be just fine if she can throw a fast ball and changeup for strikes."
Walker said sophomore Anna Baker could work her way into Nixa’s pitching picture by serving as a contrast to LaBarge. Baker owns a summer league win over Pleasant Hope.
“Anna is quite a bit slower than Jaden,” Walker said. “With there being a lot different speed, that could keep the hitters off balance.”