From backup to tournament starter, local pitcher finds her stride

Gracie Laukkanen’s arm is “a little sore,” she concedes.

It’s a fair complaint from the 17-year-old softball pitcher, who led her Salem team to victory in a regional tournament last weekend, pitching six winning games over five days with no relief pitchers, 34 strikeouts and just six earned runs.

Laukkanen wasn’t a starting pitcher at all until this summer, coach Cara Floyd said, making her standout performance even more impressive.

“You take a girl who’s always been kind of the backseat driver, she’s always been the relief or the second or third string and she was the leader of the team,” Floyd said. She’s coached Laukkanen for three years and is head coach for the Preps Academy, a recreational Salem team for teens 18 and under.

The Preps Academy won USA Softball’s 18A Western National Championship held in Portland July 26-30, with a 6-3 record. Laukkanen pitched every winning game.

The teen, who lives in Keizer, started playing t-ball when she was five and began pitching in third grade when her team was down a pitcher for a game.

“I think I was actually just thrown onto the mound,” she said. But she enjoyed it and stuck with it.

In high school, she played two seasons with McNary’s junior varsity team while also playing for Floyd.

Floyd said Laukkanen has always been a slower pitcher, clocking speeds of about 50 MPH in a league where most pitchers are throwing at least 55. As a coach, she focused on helping her pitcher learn curveballs and screwballs so Laukkanen could defeat batters by means other than speed.

“If you’re not gonna overpower them, you’ve gotta be powerful with your spin and just not let them hit it,” she said.

Laukkanen decided to take her junior season off from playing at McNary and just work on her pitching. She said there’d been some drama with college recruiting on the team and she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue with softball at all.

“It was kind of a little overwhelming and I wasn’t sure if it was something I was ready to put my all into,” she said.

She spent about five hours a week training, practicing her pitches and building up strength in the gym to give her more power, and practicing twice a week with her rec team.

Earlier this summer, the Preps Academy team traveled to Los Angeles for a tournament with some training. Laukkanen hadn’t clocked her pitches in a while, but was able to during training.

The reading came back: 57 MPH.

“I was a little confused at first, like maybe they didn’t clock it right,” she said. But another pitch got the same result.

“I was kind of shocked,” she said.

Gracie Laukkanen on the mound for Salem’s Preps Academy 18U softball team (Courtesy/Cara Floyd)

“None of us could believe it because she’s never been a powerful pitcher,” Floyd said.

That gave her a new confidence heading into play in Los Angeles and at the Portland tournament last weekend.

“I was excited to see what this new confidence I had in myself, how much it would help me with just facing batters,” Laukkanen said.

Her coach had planned to have her as a relief pitcher in Portland because she’s good under pressure, but ended up asking Laukkanen to start.

“I wanted to see if she’d be consistent,” Floyd said.

On the mound, Laukkanen says she focuses on the positive and reminds herself her teammates are there to play defense.

“You don’t need to strike them out – you just need to get the ball put in play and you have people behind you to back you up,” she said.

She pitched a winning 6-3 game Wednesday, July 26.

“I had a pitcher warmed up if she needed it but she never needed it,” Floyd said.

Gracie Laukkanen on the mound for Salem’s Preps Academy 18U softball team (Courtesy/Gracie Laukkanen)

The momentum carried her through to the end of the tournament.

By the first inning of the last game Sunday, “I knew that we kind of had it,” she said. Preps Academy was excited and motivated, while their opponents seemed already defeated.

They won the game 10-1. The game ended early because of the score difference, so Laukkanen didn’t realize when she’d pitched her last at-bat.

“I remember walking towards the dugout to get ready to go hit and then they called the game,” she said.

Laukkanen said with a renewed confidence in her pitching, she’s planning to play at McNary as a senior and hopes to get recruited for a college program.

The tournament didn’t award most valuable player. Floyd said if they had, the quiet pitcher her teammates call the “silent assassin” would have won it easily.

“I want her to know she’s not just a backup,” Floyd said.

The Preps Academy team after winning the 18U Western National Championships on July 30, 2023 in Portland (Courtesy/Cara Floyd)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.