Canney ready to lead Northwestern to title

When a rise ball bursts through the strike zone, like a comet lingering briefly in the atmosphere, it carries all of the attitude a pitcher really needs.

For seven innings, a softball pitcher has the opportunity to silently offer the strongest of soliloquies, each pitch and each out reverberating around the ballpark more definitively than hollow words or gestures ever could.

And no stage is greater than the one at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, where for seven days in June a pitcher can become the center of the softball universe.

For Northwestern, the Big Ten regular season champs and No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, the postseason begins this weekend as the Wildcats host a regional in Evanston, Ill. And in a landscape littered with pitching stars, junior ace Eileen Canney might be ready to shed her understudy profile and stake her claim to softball's leading role.

Just don't expect her to wax poetic about the opportunity.

"She's definitely an introvert," said Northwestern coach Kate Drohan. "She's quiet and at her best one-on-one."

That's true in any numbers of ways, from her one-on-one battles with frequently overmatched hitters to an interview inside a deserted Welsh-Ryan Arena during a rain delay in the conference tournament.

Talk to Canney for a few minutes and a strong personality quickly flashes from beneath her reserved countenance. Her answers are short, but they are as complete as they are succinct. You get the feeling that every word out of her mouth is matched by four or five sentences that pass unspoken through her mind. Some student-athletes act the part of their major, often in unflattering ways. But for Canney, majoring in human development and psychological services seems somehow fitting, as if understanding others is far more useful than engaging in conversations without meaning.

Not that Canney, who has a unique routine of carefully choreographed hand slaps and hop steps to go through with most of her teammates during pregame introductions, comes across as either cold or calculating.

Well, unless you have a bat in your hand and the wrong uniform on.

"For sure," Drohan said when asked if she thinks Canney has earned a place alongside the game's elite pitchers, names like Cat Osterman, Alicia Hollowell and Monica Abbott. "The last six weeks? Yeah."

For Canney, the closing weeks of a season that saw her post a 21-6 record with a 0.97 ERA and 316 strikeouts in 208.1 innings entering the NCAA Tournament have been the culmination of a pitching maturation that turned a raw flamethrower from California into the scourge of the Midwest.

"The first time I saw Leeney throw, I knew she had the skills a pitcher needs that you can't teach," Drohan said of her days recruiting Canney out of Paradise, Calif. (a town name which proved prophetic for a coach looking to solidify her rebuilding program). "She had a great wrist, long levers and good size. And I saw her keep nailing the backstop, just clearing the catcher. And I really liked that; I liked her aggressiveness. I thought that she could really develop into a top-notch pitcher."

And Drohan didn't have much trouble selling Canney on the Northwestern experience.

"I took a lot of visits and talked to a few schools," the pitcher said of her decision-making process. "But as soon as I took my visit to Northwestern, I really just fell in love with the campus and the team. I liked being in a small town and still having access to the city. I just really loved the environment.

"I was trying to find the best place for me, where I felt I could fit the best."

At first glance, the match made in Paradise was bliss from the start. Canney won 19 games as a freshman, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. But even while holding opposing hitters under .200 (something she's done in each of her three seasons), everyone involved knew how much untapped potential remained.

"Tori Nyberg the last two years has really taken her to the next level," Drohan said of the former Stanford pitcher now on Northwestern's coaching staff. "She is an excellent, excellent pitching coach and clinician. … She's taught Leeney the subtleties of pitching: body awareness and how great pitchers work. And her mechanics have really tightened up since then."

Nyberg's assistance could be expected, but Canney's development also has been aided by a less likely source: Courtnay Foster. A senior from Tucson, Ariz., whose commitment to Northwestern signaled the dawn of a new era following Drohan's ascension to the head coaching position, Foster could have been expected to bristle at the arrival of another top pitching prospect.

It's no secret, whether it's softball or baseball, that pitchers often march to a different beat. And in softball, where an ace reasonably can hope to work 75 percent of her team's innings, two egos are very often one more than a pitching staff can manage.

But Foster, who is unquestionably the team's loudest cheerleader when she's not in the circle, instead extended that support to her new teammate.

"She's really helped me a lot, both on and off the field," Canney said of Foster. "She's one of my best friends, and I think the biggest thing she has helped me with is feeling that really close connection with the other pitcher. Which is difficult to find, to be on a team and have pitchers that are really close.

"I really feel like we give to each other and tell each other about the other team we're about to play, past games we've played against them and the hitters we're going to face. So we talk about that, but she's also shared all of her experiences and her stories too."

They make something of an odd couple -- as Foster puts it, "Leeney and I are opposites in more than one way."

But it works. Between the quiet Canney's overpowering stuff and the exuberant Foster's guile (although with nearly 1,000 strikeouts in her career, it's hardly accurate to say Foster gets by with junk), the Wildcats rival Arizona's combination of Hollowell and Taryne Mowatt as the best one-two punch in this year's NCAA field.

In fact, among the 16 seeded teams in this year's bracket, Arizona and Northwestern are the only squads with two pitchers who each totaled at least 20 wins and 200 strikeouts.

Arizona's partnership was as much a result of circumstance as anything else, as Hollowell missed time in the middle of the season after being struck in the face by a line drive. Mowatt proved she'll be a promising successor for next season, but it's difficult to imagine her pitching many innings in the tournament.

Northwestern's tandem is more of a true partnership. During a brutal early season schedule, both pitchers drew assignments against top teams.

"We did purposely mix it up so each pitcher was in that big-game situation, and they responded great," Drohan said.

But if there was one moment when it became clear that Canney would be the centerpiece of any championship run, it was during a game with Minnesota on April 23. With the second end of a doubleheader looming (Canney and Foster threw every inning for Northwestern this season), the Wildcats couldn't put away the Gophers. Inning after inning the game remained deadlocked, until Northwestern finally was able to claim a 4-3 win in 18 innings.

When it was over, Canney had pitched the entire game, well over four hours of softball, tying an NCAA record with 28 strikeouts. Considering how carefully she chooses her words, perhaps it's no surprise she never considered speaking up to ask out of the game.

"My body started reacting to pitching for 18 innings, I started cramping up a little bit," Canney recalled of the marathon. "But we've been training for a long time, and we have long workouts - not four and a half hours - but there wasn't any point at which I felt like I couldn't keep going."

In a race with Michigan for the regular season title, the game against lowly Minnesota mattered far more than the disparate records might have suggested. And when it comes to big games, Canney has proven herself capable time and again, including pitching seven innings of three-hit ball to beat UCLA on the road in the team's signature win.

Speaking of the tough schedule, Canney said, "I actually think the losses have had a larger impact on the way that I view the game. Going into a game, obviously it doesn't feel good to lose, so we try and reverse what happened in that game. Even though we lost to some good teams in preseason, hopefully we'll face them in the postseason and have another shot at them."

Canney spoke those words before bad luck and some uncharacteristically poor fielding from her teammates led to six unearned runs in the conference tournament title game against Michigan. But her willingness to learn from losses suggests that the defeat will serve more as motivation for what lays ahead than a death knell for her breakout season.

Working harder is just what Canney does.

"She's developed the mental toughness and she's done a great job in big games," Drohan said. "But when you meet a kid with that work ethic, you know there is no ceiling. She's going to go as far as she can."

And while some of her counterparts in the circle may speak more words and have more words spoken about them, there's every reason to think Canney can go all the way to the final curtain call in Oklahoma City.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.