Votendahl transforms area fastpitch pitchers

Jerry Votendahl has taught area fastpitch softball pitchers the finer points of the game for almost 30 years.

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Irish pitching coach Jerry Votendahl looks over the DeSales squad in between games against Waitsburg-Prescott Tuesday.

WALLA WALLA - The windmill motion of firing a softball fast-pitch style is considered more natural and less stressful than the overhand delivery of a baseball pitcher.

That doesn't mean it's any easier to master. It requires a combination of athletic skill, hard work and good coaching to achieve success in the circle.

And good coaching might well be the most important ingredient, largely because it is not always that easy to come by.

While fastpitch isn't exactly a lost art form, it has been transformed from the highly competitive men's game that was at its zenith more than half a century ago to a sport played today mostly by girls from Little League age all the way through the college ranks.

And fortunately, there are still a few "dinosaurs" around who honed their pitching skills in the game's golden age and are now bridging the gap to today's distaff pitchers.

Walla Walla's Jerry Votendahl is one of them.

Votendahl, 74, first helped the late Bud Bowman during his years as Wa-Hi's varsity softball coach from 1983 through 1997. During that time he was also sought out by Robin Greene, then the softball coach at Walla Walla Community College.

And when DeSales switched from slowpitch to fastpitch in the early 2000s, Votendahl was recruited by head coach Kathy Lynch to work with the Irish pitchers. And he has remained on the staff under Russ Vera, who replaced Lynch three seasons ago.

During his years at DeSales, Votendahl turned 2005 graduate Jessica Majerus into a successful finesse pitcher at the Class B level and later developed Amanda Arnzen, a 2008 Irish grad who was clocked at around 60 mph and earned a scholarship to pitch at St. Martin's University.

"Jessica may have been the one I helped the most," Votendahl recalled. "She didn't have as much natural ability, but she wound up doing a pretty good job.

"Amanda started out with some good training as a little girl. Mainly, we developed an assortment of pitches and speeds. As a freshman she was throwing 45-46 mph, and when she left she was at 59-60."

Votendahl's newest prodigy is DeSales freshman Ashlyn Lyons, a gifted left-hander who was brought up to the Irish varsity last year as an Assumption School eighth-grader. All Lyons did was earn first-team all-Southeast 2B District honors as a pitcher and help DeSales to a third-place finish at the state tournament.

"Ashlyn is very special," Votendahl said. "Her potential is as high as she makes up her mind, because she will develop. Right now she's throwing in the high 40s to low 50s, and by the time she's a senior she will be up around 60, which is good enough.

"When I first got her last year, she knew how to throw fast but couldn't throw a lot of pitches. We've now developed a changeup, a rise and a drop, and she also throws a little bit of a screwball. And she's still only a freshman.

"Most of all, she's a hard worker," Votendahl said. "And if she doesn't make it as a pitcher, she will as a hitter because she can really rip the ball."

Votendahl began to develop his own fastpitch skills as a 13-year-old when his older brother Bob returned from the military service. Fastpitch softball hereabouts was the rage back then, a time and a place that had already given berth to Eddie Feigner and the world famous King and His Court.

"My brother Bob was a really good pitcher," Votendahl said. "Like a lot of guys, he learned it in the service when fastpitch was a really big deal, and Bob taught me."

Votendahl remembered a time when he watched his older brother, who died in 2006 at the age of 86, hook up in a pitching duel with Feigner before the King introduced his heralded four-man softball team and took it on the national stage.

"I was visiting Bob while I was still in grade school and Eddie Feigner was pitching for this construction team out of the Tri-Cities," Votendahl recalled. "The other team didn't have a pitcher and they asked Bob. He went out there in his wingtips and beat Eddie 2-1."

Feigner, who died in 2007 at the age of 82, was good, Votendahl said of the Walla Walla native who conjured up his four-man softball show on a dare in 1946 and spent several decades barnstorming around the country. He was celebrated as the greatest softball pitcher of all time.

Of that Votendahl is not convinced.

"There were others around here who were just as good as Eddie Feigner," Votendahl said. "The difference was, Eddie pitched all the time where others just pitched once on a weekend and had maybe one or two practices in a week.

"But Eddie was a showman, and he worked hard at his trade."

Votendahl had the opportunity to match up with Feigner on a couple of occasions, once in the Tri-Cities and the second time at Borleske Stadium in Walla Walla when the King and His Court came through town for the final time.

"It was toward the end of my pitching career," Votendahl recalled of the game at Borleske. "In fact, I had probably given it up, but they needed a thrower."

Votendahl played football, basketball and baseball at St. Patrick's Catholic High School, where he graduated in 1954. He later played basketball at Columbia Basin College and basketball and baseball at Gonzaga University.

Ironically, he played center field in baseball.

But by the time he was in high school, Votendahl had already developed his softball pitching skills to the point where he was making a name for himself and earning some spending cash in the process.

"I pitched a little bit on the side during high school," he recalled. "And when I was in college, I was able to get jobs where I pitched for a pipe fitting outfit in the Tri-Cities and for teams like the Rainiers and Lucky Lager in Spokane."

However, college didn't come for Votendahl until after a four-year hitch in the Air Force right out of high school.

"Where I really picked it up and developed it better was in the service," Votendahl said of his fast-pitch skills. "Softball was a big deal between the bases, and I got the chance to pitch every day. I got a lot stronger, developed and got a lot faster."

Among the pitches he refined in the service were a rise, a rise curve, a couple of different drops, a palm ball, a knuckleball, a changeup and a screwball. And, of course, the fastball.

"They clocked us in the service with some type of radar, and they had me in the 90s," Votendahl said. "That was when I really peaked, and shortly after that I came back home."

Votendahl earned his bachelor's degree at Gonzaga in 1963 and his law degree in 1967.

Votendahl spent his entire legal career in Walla Walla. He worked in private practice with Bill Roach and Dick Monahan, spent six years in the prosecutor's office and served four four-year terms as Walla Walla Country District Court Judge. Votendahl wrapped up his career as the part time district judge for the last eight years, retiring in January.

Over the years, Votendahl has watched girls high school softball in the valley flourish.

Wa-Hi's program has become one of the best in the state's Class 4A ranks. DeSales, Dayton, Touchet and now Waitsburg-Prescott have surfaced as Class B powers. And south of the border, Mac-Hi and Weston-McEwen have earned statewide softball reputations in Oregon.

And much of this success has to do with pitching, which is a credit to Votendahl and others like him who have made it a point to pass on the skills they learned so long ago.

Still, Votendahl laments the fall of men's fastpitch softball, which was replaced by the slow-pitch or beer-league game.

"Fast-pitch was such a good game," Votendahl said. "And I think it died out for a couple of reasons."

"First, guys like to hit the ball. And a good fast-pitch pitcher can dominate a game ... one, two, three hits a game. Hitting was sporadic. But in slow-pitch, you can hit.

"And second, there weren't any good programs to teach fast-pitch. And gradually, we just ran out of pitchers."

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