The University of Nebraska at Omaha has a veritable folk-hero in its midst in hard-throwing senior softball ace Dana Elsasser, who's overcame serious challenges to become a pitching phenom. With her near legendary career fast nearing its end, fans have only a few chances left to catch her in action.
In her No. 1 pitcher role she'ill get the ball at least twice in this weekend's (April 25-26) three-game home series against Summit League foe IUPUI. She enters the circle for the final time at home versus Drake on April 30. UNO, with an RPI in the 60s, concludes its season May 2-3 at Western Illinois. The team's guaranteed to finish with a winning record and Elsasser should climb UNO's career pitching charts.
Entering Tuesday's doubleheader versus North Dakota she was 21-7 on the year and 65-24 in her career with a lifetime ERA of 1.44.
Though soon exhausting her eligibility, her legend's sure to grow as a foundational figure in UNO's transition from Division II to D-I.
Her departure's coming too soon for head coach Jeanne Scarpello. She's been enamored with Elsasser's ability and character since first laying eyes on her in 2010.
"From day one you could tell she's a different kid – just the drive and what she wanted to do and what she wanted to be. She's never going to back down from a challenge. She gives 100 percent and expects the rest of us to do the same. She pushes us to be better."
Scarpello's admiration only grew upon learning the obstacles Elsasser faced en route to becoming a winner.
"She does have quite a story," the coach says.
Born "a premie" in San Antonio, Texas to a teenage mother, Dana started life in foster care. After raising kids of their own Rick and Barb Elsasser of Hershey, Neb. were looking to adopt and the white couple got matched with Dana, an African-American, when she was a week old. She became the only black resident of Hershey until the Elsassers adopted more children of color.
Dana was an athletic prodigy, proving a natural at seemingly whatever she tried, including softball, basketball, volleyball and track.
"Dana’s balance, hand-eye coordination and kinesthetic sense have always been exceptional," says her father, a principal and coach who worked with her on her fundamentals. especially her pitching mechanics. "Every time she was shown a new skill she would master it quickly. She has always hated to lose but she used to become discouraged easily when her team was behind and that affected her play. Experience in athletics has given her the tenacity to fight through disappointment. Her UNO coaches deserve a great deal of credit for instilling a fierce competitive spirit."
Just as she was turning heads athletically as a teen she developed scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine. She underwent fusion surgery at the Mayo Clinic. Pieces of her hip bone were fused to her spine with "rods, nuts and bolts to keep everything intact," Dana says.
"The scoliosis thing was scary. Dana faced it all with great courage and determination," Rick says.
Once cleared to resume athletics she and her dad left the hospital and drove around until they found a ball diamond and began playing catch.
"I was a little scared I wouldn't be able to pitch again but I recovered relatively quickly from the back thing and it just gave me fuel to get stronger because I had to work two times as hard to get where other people were. I just did as much as I could. I ran a lot, I did sprints. I was in the weight room. I got really strong. I think strengthening my body is what helped me be prepared for college," says Dana, who's known to workout on game days and on off days following games.
"I feel I need to do to get in the mood of It's go time. Otherwise, I feel tired and sluggish and just not ready to go."
After opting to specialize in softball her pitching took off under her dad's tutelage. Her high school didn't field a team, She made a name for herself out west playing summers with the North Platte Sensations.
Typical of the upbeat Elsasser, she takes in stride everything that's been put in front of her.
"Honestly, when I was growing up I really didn't see much of the adversity I overcame as a disadvantage. I haven't thought of it as things that set me back. When I tell people my story they're like, 'Wasn't it weird being the only black person in town?' I never thought of it like that. My parents did a really good job of just making things normal for me."
Rick Elsasser says Dana has an innate sbility to adapt and persevere.
"Dana has always had tremendous resolve. I remember when she was about 5 or 6 years old, I spent about 15 minutes showing her how to shoot a basketball and then left her to practice. I went back outside about two hours later and found her still shooting. I had to make her stop and eat."
Scarpello long ago gave up trying to get Elsasser to ease off. The coach still smiles at nearly missing on this model student-athlete who outworks everyone. After all, Dana was a-best-kept secret in the sticks, where her exploits four-hours away fell on deaf ears here.
Scarpello first heard of her via a letter Dana wrote her while a senior in high school. Dana mentioned she was (then) 5-foot-4 and threw 65. Scarpello didn't buy it. She'd never heard of someone so short throwing so hard. It took corroboration from two coaches before she decided to see this little dynamo for herself. Scarpello and pitching coach Cory Petermann drove to Hastings expecting to see Elsasser pitch in a game only to have it forfeited when the opposing club didn't show. The coaches had Dana warm up with her father for a private audition. Rick had caught his daughter countless times in the yard of their home sitting on a bucket as she threw from a make-do mound. This was different. The stakes were higher, though that didn't register with Dana until reminded of it.
"I was really nervous but actually I don't think I even realized how important it was when they were watching me – that if I do good I'm going to have college paid for," Dana says. "When I started out I wasn't throwing my hardest. My dad told me, 'Get it together, this is your time right here to do it." Then I knew it was a big deal.'"
With a radar gun trained on her she consistently clocked 65 and Scarpello had seen enough to be convinced.
Rising to the occasion is something Scarpello's come to rely on from Elsasser, who acknowledges she thrives in such situations.
"I like it when I'm in pressure spots and everyone is looking to me. I just like how my team puts their trust in me and it just motivates me to do better. I like being in charge in that moment."
Five years since discovering her, Elsasser will leave UNO as one of the storied program's best pitchers. She's proven herself against elite competition despite being lightly recruited and not looking the part of a mound master with her lithe frame and diminutive stature. Her long limbs, strong core and compact delivery allow her to average 68 miles an hour on her "go-to" pitch, the drop-ball. She's hit 70. Her effortless appearing motion, honed over thousands of hours, makes it appear she's not throwing as hard as she is.
Armed with her heater, a change-up and a rise-ball, plus pin-point control, she has enough stuff to hold her own with the best.
"She is a go-right-at-you kind of kid. She's not a strikeout pitcher, though she's getting a lot more strike outs this year, but she really just lets batters put the ball in play and lets the defense work behind her," Scarpello says. "And she's a great defender as a pitcher."
Last year Elsasser one-hit Big 12 power Oklahoma State and three weeks ago she beat Big 10 heavyweight and in-state rival Nebraska 3-2 in Lincoln. She calls the victory over NU "the greatest moment I've ever had." The win followed UNO coming up short against the Huskers several times and redeemed a 10-0 drubbing at their hands earlier this year that Elsasser blamed on herself.
"I means everything to me. I got that win for my dad. That was our goal when I made my commitment to UNO – beat the Huskers. I told myself I'm not going to let them make a fool of me on the mound again."
Per usual, her folks were there to cheer her on and as always she heard her dad's voice above everyone else.
"I could him during that game yelling at me from the stands. I looked up there and I saw him jumping around. It was really emotional."
Scarpello says Elsasser has shown she "can play with the big dogs," adding, "She could be playing at any of those programs."
Elsasser says she and her teammates are often underestimated and use their underdog status as fuel to prove they belong.
"We always hear, 'Who's this Omaha team that keeps winning? Who are these people?' But we know we're capable of getting it done."
Overturning doubters seems hard-wired in Elsasser.
She would have been UNO's ace as a true freshman if not for two returning All-America pitchers. She made the most of her limited opportunities, going 10-1. Her pitching mates got most of the starts based on experience, not talent. She also struggled with illegal pitches due to a habit of lifting her foot off the mound during her delivery. She corrected the problem over the summer and prior to the following season Scarpello handed her "the torch to carry the program." Elsasser ran with it to become "our identity" but she first had to make a tough decision. UNO went D-I, initiating a transition period that made it ineligible for the postseason. Scarpello gave her players permission to transfer and she feared Elsasser might move on.
"She knew she would not to get to play for championships and that's what she came here to do," Scarpello says, "and I knew that bothered her because she wanted to make a mark. We've tried in various ways to give her some great opportunities, to challenge her, so she could make her mark and have no regrets she stayed here. Those games against top teams have become a measuring stick for her and for us."
Elsasser's sure of her legacy as a program builder but she can't imagine life without softball.
"What I'm going to miss the most is the relationships and being in the circle. The field feels like home to me. If I come to practice in a bad mood I always leave in a good mood. These girls are my best friends, we do everything together. We're just like a big family. It's kind of unsettling to know I won't have that type of bond and closeness I've been used to every day for four years."
Everyone says she'd make a great coach. "She's a real student of the game," says Scarpello, adding, "I'd hire her in a heartbeat."
"Coaching could be my career," says Elsasser. She''ll be coaching a younger sister this summer who's showing great promise as, you guessed it, a pitcher. Clearly, this legacy has legs.
UNO plays at 2 and 4 p.m. on Friday, Noon on Saturday and 6 p.m. April 30 at Westside Field at Westrbrook.
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