Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Connie Clark watched Blaire Luna's cheeks puff out, and then the Texas softball head coach took a deep breath as well.
Luna isn't a pitcher who shows emotion. Her focused gaze rarely indicates her mood, but she does have some tells -- and with those inhales against Long Beach State, Clark saw enough to know Luna was grinding.
"She did her thinking behind the rubber, and once she toed up, it was go-time," Clark says.
That eventual victory against the 49ers was merely a prelude for both Luna and the Longhorns. Eighth-ranked UT went undefeated in the esteemed Judi Garman Classic to win the tournament crown, and Luna set the stage. She posted a 3-0 record with three complete-game shutouts, including the first perfect game of her career against fourth-ranked and previously unbeaten Washington.
Luna has now thrown 33 innings without allowing a run and stands 15-2 on the season. She's tossed a Big 12-best 10 shutouts, completed 16 games and fanned 170 batters. Her impeccable performance against Washington seemed a long time coming, though not necessarily to Luna.
"To be honest, I felt like I didn't have the greatest warm-up," Luna recalled. "But once I got out there, I felt like everything was on."
Luna's mental maturation is the distinct mark of her sophomore campaign. Last year as a freshman, Luna earned All-America status and started every Big 12 game for the Longhorns relying heavily on competitive instinct and natural ability. She started playing tee ball at five and began pitching at nine.
At first, Luna's strength was her consistency -- she naturally found the strike zone. Her weapons developed over time.
"My movement," Luna says, "that's probably the thing that distinguishes me from other people."
Clark has recently worked with Luna on solidifying her mental preparation, particularly in the bullpen as she warms up for games.
"That's a work-in-progress, always," Clark says. "You just want to make sure they're going through scenarios. You can't be in a mode when you're going out there and setting into games."
For that Luna also has the stabilizing force of senior catcher Amy Hooks. After more than a year of games, practice and bullpen sessions, the pair has developed quite a bond. Luna says that Hooks is almost like a mind reader.
"She can anticipate what I want to throw," Luna says.
And with that comfortable reality, Hooks allows Luna to settle into games and rely on her natural gifts.
"I know she's good enough to beat hitters," Hooks says. "So I tell her to try and shut her mind off for a little while. Just throw and let me play chess with them. When she's not thinking, she throws so easy and natural."
When Luna is focused and in a rhythm, she tends to work quickly. She thinks through mechanics behind the rubber, but when she steps to the stripe, her sole focus is the target.
"I've never seen her show emotion in the circle," Hooks says.
Luna saves those emotional outbursts for the comforts of the locker room or home. Her real-life personality is more like the Luna featured in her introduction video, shown at Red & Charline McCombs Field when she takes the field for the first inning. Luna is wearing pigtail braids and jumping around to a song presumably only she can hear.
"There's typical Blaire," said leftfielder Torie Schmidt, Luna's roommate and best friend. "Everyone else is probably wondering, 'What is Blaire doing?' I can only tell them, 'She's like that all the time. She's a goofball, just hilarious.'"
The pitcher's circle, however, is no place for laughter. And that's something Luna takes seriously.
"When it's game time, she's ready to work," Hooks says.