PORT ANGELES — North Olympic Peninsula softball diamonds have never seen anything like Port Angeles senior Nizhoni Wheeler.
Wheeler, quite simply, is the most dominant softball pitcher ever to step into the circle for any high school team in Peninsula history.
There’s really no argument against this assertion. She’s put up the best statistics for the longest duration at the highest classification.
After an All-Peninsula MVP season as a junior that saw Wheeler develop at the plate into an all-around threat, she outdid herself as a senior.
Wheeler led the Roughriders to a fourth-straight Olympic League title, the first West Central District championship in school history and all the way to the Class 2A state championship game to earn Port Angeles’ first-ever state trophy.
She went 16-2 on the mound, including three straight complete-game shutouts at the state tournament, posted a 0.724 ERA and struck out 158 batters.
Offensively she batted .513 at the plate with five home runs and 19 RBIs and was voted the Olympic League 2A Division MVP.
She’s also a repeat pick as All-Peninsula Softball MVP in voting by area coaches and the sports staff of the Peninsula Daily News.
“It’s a no-brainer for her as the MVP. You couldn’t ask for a better senior year,” Riders coach Randy Steinman said.
Coach and pitcher developed a special bond over the past eight years.
“I’ve coached her since she was 10 years old,” Riders coach Randy Steinman said. “I’ve watched her develop as a player from that 10-year-old girl all the way to second in state.
“I like to say she was a hard-thrower, she would dominate, but this year she became a true pitcher. Nizhoni worked diligently at practice on every single thing because she knew exactly what she had to do to go far at state.”
Steinman said after coming up short on previous trips to state, Wheeler realized she would need to rely on more than a dominant fastball.
“What she did this last year to become that true pitcher, all the work she put in to master the command of her pitches helped to increase the confidence in herself and her mental aspect just changed so much this year.
“She went from that overpowering pitcher, to a college-level pitcher with her command.”
Wheeler said more practice time pitching helped pave the way for her improvement.
“I pitched a lot more in the offseason than I did last year,” she said.
“And this year I worked on pitching with [fellow pitchers] Callie Hall and Hope O’Connor like every single day at practice, so that really helped.”
Wheeler can blow the fastball past anybody. But she also has some other weapons in her arsenal.
“I have a change[up], I’ve had it my whole life and I really worked on it this year and had a lot more confidence in that pitch,” she said.
“I throw a drop curve that comes up and then it drops right under their bat. I have a screwball, and that’s more if I want to throw inside to righties or outside to lefties.
Wheeler used her last pitch to rack up the majority of her strikeouts, sending opposition batters back to the dugout silently shaking their heads or muttering quietly.
“And I have a rise ball, that’s probably my favorite pitch comes up at their hands and it gets people to swing and miss,” she said.
She agreed with Steinman regarding her mental approach to the game.
“When I was younger I don’t think I understood how to handle the pressure and I just kind of didn’t rise to the occasion at times,” Wheeler said. “As I got older, I got more confidence in the defense behind me. Coach would help build me up, and having that support from everybody helped me grow mentally stronger.”
Wheeler also had plenty of support at games from her immediate family and Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe members — further reinforcement for a strong pitcher from the Strong People.
And on the rare occasion she made a mistake, Wheeler had a friend stop by the circle to cut the tension in catcher Lauren Lunt.
“She’s one of my best friends and has a great sense of humor, so she would help by saying an inside joke and getting me to think about something else,” Wheeler said.
Both coach and player agreed on her best performance of the season.
After pitching a complete-game 1-0 shutout of Othello in warm weather earlier on the first day of state, Wheeler faced Sehome that afternoon, a team with just one loss and a bevy of home run hitters, for a spot in the state semifinals.
Wheeler didn’t just dominate on the mound in a 4-0 win, she also hit two solo home runs to break open the game.
“After that Othello game the heat got to me and I didn’t feel very good,” Wheeler said. “While I was warming up, the coaches were coming over with wet towels, with water, just trying to cool me down.
“It was hard but I think I got more confidence after the first home run and I think the adrenaline kicked in and I was ready to go and I just wanted to win.”
Steinman said he has a tradition to highlight each player’s best game at the team’s end-of-season banquet.
“With Nizhoni it was the Sehome game. The shutout, the two home runs,” he said. “She basically said, ‘If you guys aren’t going to give me any run support I’ll carry us myself. And she was dead tired from pitching the other game. But she has endurance like none other. She’s a workhorse and will give you everything she’s got and that proved it.”
Steinman said he’ll miss Wheeler’s laughter when she attends Lower Columbia College to play basketball and softball for the Red Devils.
“Her sense of humor is what I’ll miss,” he said. She would take all my jokes and handle them well and dish it all right back. I will miss that.
“Lower Columbia doesn’t realize what they are getting. They saw here at state couple of years ago, but now they are getting an amazing pitcher with tons of confidence. They pretty much won the lottery getting her.
“LCC is a great feeder program, I think its a great choice for her. She gets to play basketball and softball and I know she’ll play softball at a four-year school.”
Wheeler said she chose Lower Columbia because she wanted to play both sports at the next level and “their softball coach played for Oregon State and has good connections through the Pac-12 and in the northwest and they are really good programs, both of them. When I visited I could feel that sense of family and community in the support they all had for each other.”
And she’ll always remember her time as a Roughrider.
“It’s been cool to be part of this with the same group of girls, to start off and finish it off with them and the same coach. It was awesome.”