Columbia College’s Monica Mueller has been the most dominant pitcher in the American Midwest Conference this season.
She has done it all without her plicas, horseshoe-shaped folds that serve as a divider between the lower and upper part of the knee.
With the regular-season conference title locked up, the Cougars, ranked No. 7 in the NAIA, will rely on their ace this weekend when they try to repeat as champions of the AMC Tournament at Cosmopolitan Park. As the No. 1 seed, the Cougars (37-9, 11-1) have a bye in the first round of the double-elimination tournament. They will play their first game at 1:45 p.m. today against the winner of the game between Illinois-Springfield and Missouri Baptist. Columbia College will play the rest of its games Saturday.
Mueller, a junior from Hannibal, has recovered from two knee surgeries in the past three years and established herself as the premier pitcher in the conference. She is 19-5 with a 0.52 ERA and 177 strikeouts.
In the summer of 2001, Mueller had arthroscopic surgery on her left knee to remove her plica and realign the kneecap. Last summer, she had the same operation performed on her right knee.
The plica is a normal part of the knee joint and doesn’t often cause pain. When it becomes inflamed, it can cause pain to the front and inner sides of the knees.
Mueller said the doctors told her that her knee problems didn’t result from specific trauma, but rather from growing too quickly.
“I like to say that I have the knees of a 65-year-old,” she said. “By the time I am 30 or 35, the doctors said I could have bad arthritis.”
After her first surgery, Mueller was out for the fall and winter. She bounced back from her most recent surgery more quickly. Relying on a heavy regimen of leg lifts, leg squats and other exercises, Mueller rehabbed three times a week and regained the strength in her knee by the end of the summer.
She said the surgery to her right knee had more of an effect on her pitching mechanics because she plants on her right leg when she releases the pitch.
Mueller said she maintained an optimistic outlook throughout rehab because she knew the hard work would be beneficial.
“It was frustrating because I was just expecting to be right back,” she said. “The hardest thing was getting back into shape. I couldn’t even touch a softball all summer.
“It wasn’t that bad, though, because I knew it was going to make me better.”
Mueller credits Cougars assistant coach Chad Schatz for pushing her during practice.
“I am a lot stronger than I have ever been,” Mueller said. “Every year has gotten better.”
A newfound sense of confidence has come with her strength. Mueller began her Cougars career as the second pitcher, but moved up to the No. 1 spot this season.
Mueller said she thrives in the role.
“It puts more pressure on me, which makes me want to pitch 10 times better,” she said.
Cougars coach Wendy Spratt said Mueller has made the most of her opportunity.
“She has done a great job as our No. 1 pitcher this season,” Spratt said. “She is in all of the pressure situations and her confidence has increased as the season has gone on. Our team plays well behind her.”
Spratt said the only drawback to Mueller’s surgeries is that she can’t participate in all of the conditioning drills.
“The doctors said that we shouldn’t put any extra pressure on her knees,” Spratt said. “Pitchers really need the conditioning, though, so we just have her ride a bike.”
Spratt also said Mueller has become more vocal.
“Up until this year, she was kind of quiet,” Spratt said. “I have noticed that she is more confident and determined now. She approaches each game with the intention of not giving up any hits.”
Amy Seipp, who has caught Mueller for the past three seasons, said Mueller’s mental approach has improved.
“She is much better at keeping her composure and not getting angry at bad calls,” Seipp said. “Her ball is moving really well, her speed is up, and she is really accurate.”
As the anchor of the pitching staff, Mueller said she knows she needs to lead by example. Throughout the season, she has spent much time working with the Cougars’ second pitcher, Kerri Gapka. In the process, Gapka has become one of the top pitchers in the conference. She is 17-4 with 74 strikeouts and a 1.59 ERA.
Gapka said she appreciates Mueller’s guidance.
“Lately, she has been helping me out with specific pitches, especially my curveball,” Gapka said. “It’s good to have another coach out on the field.”
Columbia College won’t need to completely rely on its pitchers in the tournament because its bats have been as potent. The Cougars lead the conference with a team batting average of .341 and 5.7 runs per game.
Seipp leads the Cougars’ offense. She is hitting .388 with 17 doubles, seven home runs and 39 RBIs.
Spratt said that though the Cougars lead the conference in nearly every offensive category, they can’t take their competition lightly.
“We’ve had a target on our back all year long,” she said. “We’ve seen the best pitchers from each team. We’re prepared.”