To Emilee Downing, pitching must be like riding a bike.

As a junior for the California University of Pennsylvania softball team this spring, she entered the circle for the first time since graduating from Groveport Madison High School in 2015.

"I wasn't recruited as a pitcher and was expecting to play infield," Downing said. "But I was mostly the designated player in right field my first two years. I'm not a natural outfielder, but I think I held my own at the plate."

Downing made 16 starts and appeared in 33 games as a freshman, batting .333 with 10 RBI, but made just three starts and 20 appearances as a sophomore.

"Near the end of my sophomore season, I was just goofing around throwing some pitches on the side during a practice and I guess it caught the attention of my coaches," she said. "They told me to work on it some and they'd see what I had when I came back."

This spring, Downing went 6-5 with one save and had a 3.22 ERA with 108 strikeouts and 39 walks in 91 1/3 innings.

She twice was named league Pitcher of the Week for the Vulcans, who finished 19-18 overall and 12-8 in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference-West Division.

"Before going home last summer, she asked if she could try pitching, and when she came back, she was throwing well," Vulcans coach Rick Bertagnolli said. "She continued to work hard to earn a spot on the (pitching) staff and did a real good job for her first year.

"She had a ton of strikeouts and a very solid strikeout-to-walk ratio. She has good movement on her pitches and changes speed quite well, although we'd like to see her really master that next year. If she does that, who knows what her high end can be? It looks very promising."

The odds of Downing regaining her pitching form seemed to be stacked against her, given that she had not had a heavy workload in the circle since 2013 when she went 16-8 with a 2.82 ERA as a sophomore with the Cruisers.

A three-time first-team all-OCC-Ohio Division selection and two-time second-team all-district honoree in Division I, Downing played just four games with Groveport as a junior before biceps tendinitis ended her season. As a senior, she went 9-4 with one save, a 1.26 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 83 innings.

"The first thing I did last summer was get a pitching coach," Downing said. "I worked with Courtney Fain, a Groveport teacher and assistant Groveport coach who is a former pitcher at the University of Charleston. Once we started, I realized how much I really missed pitching.

"We started working on just fundamentals three times a week, with things like spinning the ball, body movement and positioning. We started with a simplified approach and then worked on minute details after resetting my foundation."

Another development at California University of Pennsylvania, a Division II school, made things even more challenging for the Vulcans this spring.

"Our facility renovation began late last summer, so we were without a practice field the whole school year and we played all of our games on the road or at neutral sites," Bertagnolli said. "Considering how difficult that is to do, I was happy with our results and the girls' patience and understanding. But we should be able to work on things a lot more next year, on real fields and everything. We're excited about the facility and how much it will help our program."

Downing was named league Pitcher of the Week for March 11-17 and April 22-28.

In the latter week, she went 2-1 with one save and pitched three complete games as the Vulcans won three of their final four regular-season games to secure a berth in the PSAC tournament. Her loss that week was a 5-4 decision to Seton Hill, in which she allowed two earned runs in 10 innings (163 pitches). Her save came in a 3-2 win over Edinboro in the regular-season finale to clinch the PSAC tournament berth. The Vulcans went 1-2 in the tournament.

Downing, the daughter of Cruisers' coach Rick Downing, has a bright future, according to Bertagnolli.

"She is majoring in criminal justice (homeland and international security) and has a wonderful reputation in her field and is being sought already by different entities," Bertagnolli said. "She's won several academic awards and is a very serious student. She's going to have a good professional career.

"On the field, she's moving in the right direction to have a great senior season. She loves the game and is dedicated and a hard worker. She has the same attributes on and off the field, and that's what makes her such a great young lady."

bemerine@thisweeknews.com

@Brad_ThisWeek