AMES — When you watch Nicole Timmons overwhelm teams with her riseball or baffle them with her changeup, the first inclination is the all-stater has been pitching all her life.
It is quite the opposite.
The Davenport Assumption senior didn’t dabble with pitching until eighth grade and didn’t evolve into an elite talent until after her sophomore season.
“It all happened really, really fast,” Timmons said after the softball team’s workout Wednesday morning at the Iowa State softball complex. “I was not very good my sophomore year, but my pitching coach told me if I stuck with it, I’m close to making that big jump.”
The Drake recruit has made a meteoric rise, evolving from a junior varsity-level pitcher just two or three summers ago that had difficulty hitting the catcher’s mitt occasionally to arguably the top girl in the state.
Timmons takes a 23-0 record and 0.42 ERA into Thursday afternoon’s Class 3A state semifinal against Center Point-Urbana. She has struck out 291 hitters in 134 innings, nearly 2.2 strikeouts per frame.
“It has been an amazing journey to see her progress,” catcher Emma Valainis said. “It was hard to watch and see her struggle like that early because she’s a very dominant person. But to see that transition and how far she’s come, it is unbelievable.”
The oldest of six children and a 4.0 student at Assumption, Timmons saw her pitching take off when she began working with Trent Rubley, who played 20 years of high-level fastpitch softball.
They met twice a week, with the focus on perfecting a riseball and changeup.
“He told me if I came twice a week, he’d get me there and get me to play in college,” Timmons said. “I started working out and lifting as well. I really loved it.
"He's been a great coach."
After a game against Camanche her sophomore year, a former Ashford University coach invited Timmons to come play for the Clinton Comets.
That opportunity opened a door to play for Iowa Premier. That allowed her to get seen by college programs.
In January of her junior season, Timmons received an offer from Drake. A day after taking a visit to the Des Moines campus, she committed.
Assumption coach Ron Ferrill, also the head coach at St. Ambrose, believes her late start into pitching has aided her success.
“As a college coach, I see too many coaches and parents start their kids young and over-push them young and burn them out physically or mentally,” Ferrill said. “You see kids peak too soon.
“With her starting that late, she never has gotten to that point where she could get burned out. She’s getting to a point where she’s going to peak and thrive.”
Timmons was 21-4 with an ERA of 0.99 last summer. Even though she had 259 strikeouts, she walked 75 — five in the title-game loss to Benton Community.
In nearly the same number of innings this season, the walk total has dipped by 28 and the ERA is a half-run lower. She’s had 19 outings this year with 10 or more strikeouts and thrown five no-hitters (five innings or more).
“All the way around, I’ve gotten a little bit better,” she said. “My spin is tighter, and my changeup has really improved.”
The riseball, though, is her go-to pitch.
Besides fooling hitters, it can present problems for her own catcher.
“It is crazy to catch,” Valainis said. “I tell her all the time that it throws the batters off but it also throws me off sometimes. She’s just perfected it.
“It was a beautiful pitch last year, but she’s finally zoned in on it and it’s very dominant.”
In addition to her stuff, Timmons also has plenty of motivation.
Assumption has won 42 straight games and is two wins from the school’s first state softball crown.
Timmons is eager to make amends for last year’s final where she didn’t even make it out of the third inning.
“I always think back to that game,” she said. “We were so close, and if I could have finished that one out, we could have had it last year. It has really been a driving force.”
Ferrill and Valainis know Timmons is more equipped to handle the big moment.
“Physically, she’s advanced a lot and her pitches have advanced, but the confidence in her own ability is the biggest thing,” Ferrill said.
Timmons hasn’t allowed a run since June 22 — a span of 54 innings.
“She has so much more confidence in herself and her pitches,” Valainis said, “but maybe more so in us as a team and our defense. She is ready to finish this thing off and go out how we all want to go out.”