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New Athens High junior Julia Drake can't count the number of times Yellow Jackets softball coach Conrad Widdersheim implored her to add a rise ball to her already impressive two-pitch arsenal.

"Way too many," Drake laughed. "I got tired of hearing it, so I decided I might as well do it."

Drake is happy she finally relented.

The hard-throwing right-hander, with a new pitch in tow this spring, has become the area strikeout queen with 106 punchouts in 64 innings — an average of 11.47 per game, tops in the state among Class 1A hurlers.

Drake has recorded seven double-digit strikeout games, including her last six. She fanned 14 in a 5-0 win over Steeleville on March 28.

A three-sport standout, Drake has almost doubled her whiff total of last season at this time. And she is coming off a strong 21-3 campaign in which she helped the Yellow Jackets to the super-sectional round for just the third time in school history.

Drake went from really good to super impressive in just one offseason — thanks to a new, deadly weapon.

"With the movement of her rise ball, plus she has a great changeup, it gives her a deadly combination of power and finesse," Widdersheim said. "She always threw hard and always had exceptional control. Now she's tougher than ever."

Widdersheim's biggest problem was convincing Drake another pitch could put her over the top.

"I told her her freshman year that that was a pitch she should start working on," Widdersheim recalled. "I'm not sure she was convinced."

New Athens junior third baseman Lindsey Poirot, who has played softball alongside Drake since the two were 5 years old, said Drake just needed a little prodding to accept the new challenge.

"She can be pretty stubborn some times," Poirot said.

Drake decided to dive head first into the idea during the offseason. She takes weekly lessons from St. Louis-based pitching coach Cindy Zelinsky, who helped her sharpen the new pitch.

Now, Drake considers it her main weapon.

"I'm pretty confident in throwing it at any time," Drake said. "I'm still working on it, it can get better. And it will. But I'm happy with it so far."

Drake could see the difference almost immediately.

"After the first couple games, I told my dad, 'This is working a lot better than I expected it to,' " Drake said. "I didn't expect (results) as fast as they came."

Drake also excels at volleyball and basketball. She recorded 122 kills in helping the volleyball team reach the regional final before losing to Lebanon last fall. A 5-foot-9 forward, she averaged eight points and six rebounds for the basketball team, which won a regional title.

But softball has always been her first love and she hopes to continue playing it in college.

Drake took over the No. 1 pitching role for the Yellow Jackets late in her freshman campaign. She finished with an 8-4 record.

Last season, Drake struck out 190 batters in 164 innings, using a fastball and change almost exclusively.

The results are vastly different this time around. She hit the century mark in strikeouts nine games into the season, but needed 16 to reach that mark last year.

The youthful Yellow Jackets are turning some heads with a surprising 6-6 start to the season. They lost eight seniors from last year's team and have no seniors on the roster. Drake and Poirot are the only two full-time returning players.

Which bodes well for the next few months — as well as next season.

"We're getting better every time we go out there," Drake said. "And we think we can keep doing that."

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