How Alabama softball's Montana Fouts became a perfect-game ace after a 'come-to-Jesus' meeting with her pitching coach

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

OKLAHOMA CITY — Alabama softball pitcher Montana Fouts didn't experience the pivotal point of her 2021 season during a game.

Just at a day of practice. 

The pitchers were spending time in the bullpen at Rhoads Stadium that day in early April: talking, reflecting and working with pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro like they do every week.

The coach pulled Fouts aside.

“I kind of had a come-to-Jesus with her,” Vanbrakle Prothro told The Tuscaloosa News. “I just sat down and said, ‘We can’t blow it by people. We can’t be trying to throw (hard). We have to spin it. We have to make the ball move. That’s how we get people to miss. We can’t try to strike everybody out. When we try to do that stuff, that’s when we leave the ball flat.'”

Fouts took it to heart, making that moment a pivot. The 6-foot-1 junior right-hander from Grayson, Kentucky, used the wisdom passed along in that conversation as a foundation to transform from a great pitcher to a complete star in the sport.

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And she’s shining brightly in the Women’s College World Series. She pitched a perfect game, the fifth all-time at the WCWS, Friday night in a 6-0 victory over No. 2 UCLA at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City on her birthday.

Alabama is now one win away from the WCWS championship series. The Crimson Tide will play Sunday (2:30 p.m. CT, ESPN) against an opponent to be determined. If UA loses that game, it will play Sunday night in an elimination game, with the winner advancing.

Earlier on the day of the UCLA game, her 21st birthday, she was named one of four softball finalists for the Honda Sport Award, honoring the top woman athlete in 12 NCAA-sanctioned sports.

The weekend before that conversation with her pitching coach, Fouts had just pitched against Texas A&M. It resulted in a victory for Alabama (52-7), but she gave up 10 hits, six earned runs and three home runs.

That seems unfathomable for Fouts now.

Alabama's Montana Fouts celebrates after pitching a perfect game for a 6-0 win against UCLA on Friday night in the Women's College World Series.

Mainly because she hasn’t come close to reaching those numbers in any game since. The most earned runs Fouts has given up: three. With five home runs total.

Fouts has struck out 20 batters since, an average of about 10 strikeouts per game. She’s also giving up fewer hits. Fouts hasn’t given up 10 hits in a game since Texas A&M, the highest being seven against Kentucky in the super regional.

“I really feel like she got a lot better,” VanBrakle Prothro said.

So what does changing spin mean? To VanBrakle Prothro, that means Fouts using her fingers more strategically: where they are placed and which fingers are putting pressure on the ball to make it spin a certain direction.

Throwing hard was not an issue for Fouts then and it isn’t an issue now. She routinely clocks above 70 mph on the radar gun and has hit 75 in some outings – top-end speed for a college softball pitcher.

"I love to throw hard, but the best hitters in the country, you can't throw 90 or they're going to hit it," Fouts said. "Spin. Spin. Spin. Speed does help. I appreciate my speed, but at the same time, that's not always there, so you've got to rely a lot more on spin." 

The next game, the coach said, Fouts immediately started spinning the ball more, getting more swings and misses.

“Once you see it, and then you know you can do it, it’s like, 'OK, I’m going to keep doing this,’” VanBrakle Prothro said. “I’m going to keep trusting this and keep working through the process.”

The Crimson Tide needed her to keep trusting it, especially when pitcher Lexi Kilfoyl missed about a month with an injury. Before that, Fouts was 1A and Kilfoyl was 1B in the Alabama rotation. Since then, Fouts has become a true ace, spinning ball after ball, forcing strikeout after strikeout while leading Alabama on a winning streak that has now spanned 20 games. 

“She took and listened to what I was saying and really took it on her own,” VanBrakle Prothro said. “I think we’ve been much better ever since then.”

And Fouts was wise to listen to a coach who tutored former Alabama pitcher Jaclyn Traina en route to Alabama’s WCWS championship in 2012. And VanBrakle Prothro pitched in the WCWS three times herself.

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The trust Fouts has in her coach stems not only from her resume but also their relationship, shown through genuine care off the field. Here’s a prime example: When VanBrakle Prothro’s son arrived last November, Fouts was one of the players who organized a food train for the pitching coach.

That meant scheduling dropping off meals every day for about a month.

“Relationships are key when you’re coaching,” VanBrakle Prothro said. “You have to trust what I’m saying and I have to trust that you trust me enough to believe what I am telling you is good.”

That early-April advice has proven good for Fouts. She’s not perfect at spinning all the time, though.  

“She doesn’t always do it the way I’d like her to do it,” VanBrakle Prothro said. “I’m a perfectionist, but I do want her to spin it.”

Fouts might not be flawless, but she’s been pretty darn close. Look no further than her perfect game. 

During the first two innings against UCLA, Fouts' cross necklace got stuck in her face mask twice. She can usually untangle the snag herself, but her teammates had to help. 

Right before the necklace caught, Fouts had been throwing what she felt were flat pitches. She wasn't happy with her spin. 

"So I went in the dugout," Fouts said, "and I told Steph, ‘Jesus was trying to tell me something: Spin it a little bit.’"