By Jeff Johncox
D.J. Mathis has known some adversity in her two-plus seasons at Oklahoma.
And it’s been a long journey for the 5-6 hurler from East Alton, Ill., which is just north of St. Louis along the Illinois River. But it finally looks like the hard work she’s put in is starting to pay off.
The Sooner junior is 3-0 this season with a 0.39 earned run average. And all of her wins have been complete-game victories, including last Sunday’s against No. 10 UCLA on the Bruins’ home field during the UCLA-Cal State Fullerton Freeway Series.
“It was exciting,” Mathis said of the UCLA victory. “It was very exciting.”
Mathis suffered some growing pains her freshman year of 2006. She and some of the other freshmen at OU had trouble finding their game.
She finished that season 15-9 with a 2.27 ERA. Though she wasn’t a power pitcher, she recorded her share of strikeouts and was an intimidating fireball of bright red hair and energy when she stepped into the circle.
She got hot toward the end of the season, pitching spectacularly at the Michigan Regional in Ann Arbor.
Still, the first year of college softball had been a long one for Mathis. She incurred a shoulder injury in the middle of the schedule and pitched in pain the rest of the way.
When the team’s plane landed for a stopover between Ann Arbor and Norman, Mathis was quick to point out how close to home she was.
“It’s not very far,” she said, one day removed from being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament.
She admitted to missing home, like most freshmen, and by the time she was on campus the next fall, Mathis was being looked at as the new ace in coach Patty Gasso’s cadre of pitchers. All the pressure that came along with that was present, too.
Summer shoulder surgery on her rotator cuff and labrum slowed her return to the field and she came back for her sophomore year pitching behind junior-college transfer Lauren Eckermann, who immediately established her presence as the new dominant Sooner starter.
She finished 2007 12-3 with a 2.60 ERA, never seeming to fully recover from surgery. She only pitched 97 innings last season as Eckermann took over the reins as the Sooners’ go-to pitcher. Without Mathis as a stable back-up, Eckermann started to feel the strain of a complete Division I season by the time the NCAA Tournament came along.
“I was just trying to get myself back and healthy and strong again,” Mathis said. “It was exciting because we had such a great season. Regardless of how my arm felt, it was exciting to see Lauren come in and do so well.”
Mathis plugged away, helping out where she could, yet wary of re-injuring her shoulder.
That tentative attitude was costly.
“I think I was really scared of coming back too soon and maybe tearing myself up again,” Mathis said. “It was kind of hard still being in pain and thinking I was supposed to be O.K.”
Things are looking up for Mathis, though. The Sooners are at the UNLV Desert Classic this weekend, meeting BYU at 2:30 p.m. today and Cal State Northridge at 7:30.
She’s a Norman girl now, and hardly gets a chance to go back home.
And she’s finally healthy and looking forward to a big season. When Eckermann and Mathis are both pitching well, the Sooners have a 1-2 combo in the circle that’s hard to beat.
For Mathis, things are just getting back to normal.
“(The shoulder) is pretty much as normal as it’s going to get,” she said. “It’s been awesome so far. It’s just nice to go out and throw without any worries of an injury or anything. I’m really looking forward to being able to to come out and throw healthy all year.”