It started with a handful of innings as an eighth-grader, increased to about half her team's innings as a freshman, and last year, she pitched in all but 33 innings of her team's 21-game season.
Now, with no other experienced hurlers on the Tracy-Milroy-Balaton softball team's 10-player varsity roster, Jenny Welu is the Panthers' pitching staff.
Five games into her junior season, Welu had pitched through all 35 innings of softball the Panthers had played. Her only break in the action came Friday when she missed TMB's home game against Red Rock Central/Westbrook-Walnut Grove while attending an FCCLA convention in the Twin Cities.
It's a lot of work for one player, and a lot of responsibility, too. So far Welu is handling it well, posting a 4-1 record with 41 strikeouts, including 20 strikeouts in a recent doubleheader against Minneota/Canby/Lincoln HI.
If Welu got in a jam in the past, Kayla Daniels could come in and try to get the team out of it. Daniels was the lone senior on last year's team that went 14-7 - the first TMB squad to reach double figures in wins since 2007 - so with her gone, Welu knows her role on the team has become even more important as the Panthers try to maintain or exceed their recent level of success.
"I've realized that I do have more responsibility, and that can be more nerve-racking at times," Welu said. "Especially if I'm having a bad inning I think, 'Well, who would come in after me?' But it also motivates me to do better because I know the team needs me that much more."
Paul Skoglund, TMB's head coach, said if there's a player who can handle all that responsibility, it's Welu.
Last year, Welu was an Independent All-Area first team selection after earning an 11-6 record with a 4.15 ERA. She also batted .464 with a team-high 27 RBIs. She's proven she can step up when her team needs her, and Skoglund said she has an ideal demeanor for carrying such a heavy workload in the circle.
"Jenny's pretty steady," Skoglund said. "She never shows a lot of emotion on the up side, but then she keeps herself from dropping too far down.
"In softball, like in all sports, you have highs and lows. I tell the girls that the best team doesn't always win. You have funny things happen on the ball field and you have to be able to play the next pitch, not the last pitch. She's very steady that way. She's a 4.0 student who brings that same focus and attention to detail to the field."
Another advantage Welu has is a familiarity with her teammates, most of whom have played together for a number of years. Welu is one of six juniors on the roster, joining seniors Kate Johnston, Anna Johnson and Ashley Daniels.
Welu said the Panthers were able to turn a 4-16 record in 2010 into a 14-7 record in 2011 due to coming together as a team and working towards the shared goal of improving, and Skoglund agreed.
"The girls love softball and learning the game," Skoglund said. "We only have 10 kids on the varsity, but they're 10 kids who have worked hard to learn the responsibilities of their positions. The kids have worked really hard to learn the nuances of each of their positions and our defense is improving."
Coming off a successful sophomore campaign, Welu wanted to add to her arsenal of pitches and said she's been working on fine-tuning her change-up and adding a drop ball. She said she worked a lot with catcher Alexis Buysse in the offseason and she now feels as comfortable and in control throwing from the circle as she ever has.
"We've been pitching/catching together throughout our whole softball careers," Welu said of herself and Buysse. "Knowing each other really helps with our connection and knowing what we're going to do.
"... I'm just trying to place it where my catcher tells me. I trust her opinion, and if I can do that, I think I'm doing well."
Welu's work on her game has helped her increase her strikeout rate this season. Last year she had a total of 70 strikeouts and this year she's already over 40 through five games. Skoglund added that Welu is also providing a big contribution at the plate, where she has a batting average of over .540 swinging from the No. 3 spot in the order.
Skoglund said what's exciting for him is that Welu is such a good player, but still has yet to reach her potential.
"She hasn't reached her best game yet, that's still coming," Skoglund said. "She's done great things so far. That's the fun part for me. There's a game coming up where she's going to frustrate a lot of people. She's just a great person to have on the team."