For the past 12 years, one of the most comfortable spots on the planet for Brianna Butler has been on a field or inside a batting cage hitting softballs with her dad, former Triad baseball coach Darrell Butler.
Many times the Triad High graduate would hit 300 to 350 balls a day, honing a swing to perfection that would someday carry her to All-American status at NCAA Division II softball power Missouri-St. Louis. There were no distractions, just the repetitive sound of a bright green ball flying off the bat of a player who now holds UMSL’s career record for home runs (50), RBIs (170), hits (235) and total bases (428).
“I love everything about softball — and especially hitting,” said Butler, a senior first baseman hitting .381 with a school-record 18 home runs and 48 RBIs this season. “Being around my dad for so long, hitting is something that has always been my escape. I just love everything about it.
“I’m not ready for my softball career to be over.”
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It’s been quite a four-year run for Butler at UMSL, the top-ranked Division II school in the country. The Tritons (47-6) open NCAA Super Regional play at 2 p.m. Friday at home against 10th-ranked Indianapolis in a best-of-three series that continues Saturday at UMSL.
UMSL beat Indianapolis, a Great Lakes Valley Conference rival, two out of three games this season.
“We have seven seniors so I know that we all have the same common goal,” said Butler, whose team also reached the Super Regional last season before losing to Wayne State. “We aren’t going to stop until we make it to Oklahoma.”
In four years as a starter at UMSL, Butler has never hit below .329. She burst onto the scene as a freshman, hitting .404 with 10 homers and 45 RBIs, then combined for 22 homers and 77 RBIs as a sophomore and junior before continuing the assault on pitchers this spring.
Butler described the feeling of hitting a home run, something she’s done 50 times during her career.
“Sometimes when I see the ball and I know I’m going to make good contact with it, I don’t try for a home run,” Butler said. “I just try to swing for a gap shot. If it goes, it goes and when I make contact with my bat, I automatically know.
“If you hit it just right, you won’t feel any sting or anything and it’s going to come right off that sweet spot. It just flies.”
UMSL coach Brian Levin never tires of watching Butler wreak havoc with a bat in her hands.
“Some of the home runs she hits are incredible,” Levin said. “There’s a lot of times when she’s hitting in the cage people will stop and watch because of the velocity and the way the ball comes off her bat. She’s a rare find. Not too many people hit the ball as hard as Brianna does.”
Butler says others have told her about all her hitting records, but she’s too focused on team-based goals to pay attention.
“I can break a record, but that doesn’t mean anything if we don’t become the national champions,” she said. “I’d rather my team knock it out of the park this year so I try not to think about it that much.”
Going to work
Butler has been the model of consistency, as well as the product of a hitting regimen that few would attempt and even fewer would continue over a number of years.
Most of her hitting workouts began with 100 swings off a batting tee, then incorporated soft toss followed by a progression of pitches covering each portion of the plate. The session included live pitching or facing a machine.
Once she was at UMSL, Butler also took full advantage of the weight room facilities and trainer Josh McMillan, adding strength and power to her stroke. Along with lifting there were squats and dead lifts for leg and core strength, plus sprints to improve reaction time.
Another Butler secret? Her father, a longtime baseball assistant at Edwardsville and head coach at Triad, fashioned an end-loaded wooden baseball bat that was much heavier than her typical softball bat to further strengthen and quicken her swing.
She used the heavy piece of lumber to hit during drills before switching to a lighter aluminum bat, which she said “would feel like a little stick. It’s been wonderful having my dad help me as much as he has. The knowledge base that he’s given me is incredible.”
Levin, a Granite City native, began recruiting Butler as an assistant coach at Murray State. Once he was hired at UMSL, Levin made sure she found her way across the river to the north St. Louis campus.
“I immediately got on the phone to call her because I knew she would have an impact right away,” Levin said. “That’s exactly what happened. Even before she showed up I told her she potentially could be the most prolific offensive player to ever play at UMSL and I think that’s case.
“Everything she’s done, she’s earned it.”
Butler will leave UMSL as one of the best players in school history. She was an honorable mention All-American last season and three times has been selected first-team All-Midwest Region and first team All-Great Lakes Valley Conference.
Her 3.52 grade-point average has helped her earn All-Academic honors as well in both the conference and district.
“That’s all attributed to the work she’s put in,” Levin said. “From a young age she’s been taught pretty well by her dad, who’s a teacher of the game. She developed that work ethic as a young player and continued to develop it through her college years.”
Along with a trail of power hitting has been the steady reminder of pain thanks to a right kneecap that slides in and out of place on a fairly regular basis. The kneecap popped out in a recent game against Bellarmine, leading to more discomfort.
The bothersome knee has slowed down her power totals — she hasn’t homered in 11 games — but not her will to squeeze every ounce of effort out of her senior season.
“I let it rest and get it back to normal before I go and play 100 percent,” said Butler, who gets her knee taped and also wears a brace for extra support. “It’s my senior year so there’s nothing going to stop me. I only have so many more left. A lof of the strength and conditioning have helped me strengthen my legs up.”
Giving something back
Levin said Butler and star junior pitcher Hannah Perryman (29-3, 1.13 ERA), a finalist for national Division II Player of the Year, have helped set the tone for the team’s younger players along with senior catcher Madison Zbaraschuk and senior outfielder Katie Rutledge.
“When you get a couple people like that, that have been around the culture of winning, young people start to see that and it carries over,” Levin said. “The example that Brianna has set has been a prime example for young players.”
UMSL has two other metro-east players on the team in senior pitcher Brittni Chapman from Belleville East (17-3, 2.65 ERA) and sophomore pitcher Kelsey Bailey from Triad (1-0, 2.26 ERA).
Butler isn’t keeping all this softball knowledge and experience to herself. She has been active as a summer coach with the Collinsville Extreme 12-under travel team and plans on becoming a teacher and coach once she graduates.
That being said, she would like to postpone the end of her playing career for as long as possible.
“Softball’s been my world for the past 12 years,” she said. “It’s going to be extremely hard for me to adjust to a normal life. Every summer has been softball, I practice every day and do something softball-related every day. I’m going to have way too much free time, but I’m sure I’ll stay busy with coaching and everything else.”
Brianna Butler’s career