It’s rare enough to have two aces on a roster.
It’s even more rare when both of these said aces are best friends who genuinely root for the other without jealousy, but this is the story of Peyton St. George and Shelby Walters.
“Me and Shelby, it’s funny because we actually call ourselves yin and yang,” St. George said in an interview with The Chronicle. “We’re best friends, we got each other’s back all the way through, through thick and thin.”
St. George was a freshman during Duke’s inaugural season, and Walters followed closely behind with her freshman campaign being the following year. Although the two arrived on campus at different times, they have always had a solid friendship, with their on-field chemistry only strengthening as they both evolved as collegiate pitchers.
“What’s so special about what we have is the fact that, yes, we’re still competitive with one another but it’s not like an egotistical sort of competitiveness,” Walters told The Chronicle. “It’s more of like the competitiveness of wanting to do it for each other and wanting to prove yourself to the other person and say, ‘I got you.’”
St. George and Walters have done their fair share of proving their talent this season, with both garnering First Team All-ACC recognition and the former ranking third in the ACC in total strikeouts while the latter is sitting fourth in the conference in ERA.
‘Failure as an opportunity’
In her final ACC game of the season, St. George came into the championship contest and notched a two-inning save to earn herself the tournament MVP. Although her statline and accolades from this year are certainly things to gawk at, it was some tough lessons from her freshman season that set her up for success when the lights shined bright.
“I think having a lot of, I say, ‘failure as an opportunity’ as a young pitcher has helped me be able to calm myself down in those big moments now because I know what it feels like to give up the game-winning hit, and I know what it feels like to kind of disappoint my team,” St. George said. “But I think now I can really put myself in the shoes to just be like, ‘Do what you do, don’t make it bigger than it is.’”
St. George hails from Mechanicsville, Va., and has made a habit of finding herself on most postseason award lists that you can think of throughout her career. She wasted no time making her presence felt throughout the ACC and capped off her freshman season with the fifth-best ERA in the conference on her way to a perfect 6-0 record in ACC play.
Her sophomore year was just as dominant, and the COVID-shortened 2020 season showed all the signs of another signature St. George year. Where things really get fun is when you pull up her year-by-year statistics and look at the strikeout jump from her first season to now. St. George has racked up 184 strikeouts on the year, smashing the previous program record of 98, and broke her own wins record with 18.
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Walters comes from Cohutta, Ga., and after a rockier freshman season, she has catapulted herself atop the conference leaderboards. Walters may not have the swing and miss stuff of St. George, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t mowed through lineups all year long.
She leads the Blue Devils with her microscopic 1.30 ERA and in her 129 innings pitched, she has only given up two long balls, a testament to the down-ball pitching style that she has effectively used to navigate her way around hitters. In her most recent outing, she carved up Clemson for five innings in the ACC Championship and earned the win to improve her season record to a lopsided 17-3.
The moment in Walters' recent season that sticks out the most is the program’s first-ever no-hitter she threw against N.C. Central, but like St. George, she had lessons to learn prior to all her success this year.
“Freshman year was definitely a humbling moment for me because I was like, ‘Oh holy crap these girls can hit that pitch that I was getting swings and misses on in high school,’ and so you kind of have to reinvent yourself every year,” Walters said.
“And I think from my freshman year to sophomore year I was on the verge of getting that reinvention but I think from sophomore year to junior year, and really having that time to sit and think about what kind of pitcher I wanted to be, who I wanted to be, what my role is gonna be on this team, I was really able to create the pitcher that I am today.”
‘You’re never going wrong’
Thanks to the performances of Walters and St. George throughout this season, head coach Marissa Young has been faced with a problem that you’d be hard pressed to find a softball coach complaining about: which of my aces do I start today?
“We’re always looking at matchups. What we think the opposing team is gonna struggle with most and a lot of times it’s just a gut feeling,” Young said in an interview with The Chronicle.
“I’ve gotten to know these two really well and knowing how to motivate them and what environment they’re gonna thrive in and really it makes it easy that if you start one and things don’t go well you know you’ve got another great one to bring in behind them and they’re gonna get the job done so you feel like you’re never going wrong.”
In addition to the two pitchers complementing each other well as teammates, it would nearly be impossible for you to draw up two pitching styles that go better together.
If the lineup Duke’s facing consists of hitters who key in on low fastballs, Young can opt to go with St. George and her up-ball that attacks the upper part of the zone all game long. In the event that the Blue Devils’ opponent feasts on high pitching, Young can look to Walters’ drop-ball and high velocity to eat up outs.
“Me and [Shelby] it’s like, alright you’re starting, I’ll come in and finish behind you,” St. George said. “You do your job, I’ll do my job and I really think we’re so good together because we complement each other so well.”
‘All gas, no brakes’
For so many great athletes, it is the space between their ears that elevates them to the next level, and St. George and Walters are no different.
St. George’s motto when she pitches is “all gas, no brakes,” and not just because it’s a cool catch phrase. Those four words are so important to her on-field success that she wrote them on her hotel room mirror with a bar of soap throughout the ACC tournament, just to serve as an additional reminder to give the “110%” that she strives for anytime she is in the circle.
“I think I had to lose my confidence first to get this [all gas, no brakes] mentality,” St. George said. "So in the beginning of college I lost all confidence, I had no self-esteem. I might have been a good pitcher, I didn’t think I was a good pitcher then at least.”
True to their yin and yang dynamic, Walters has a more relaxed mental side to her pitching, and she used the COVID-caused softball break to reflect and refine the type of player and person she wanted to be.
“At the end of the day if I can say that I did my best then that’s all I’ll ask for myself and that’s all I’ll ask from anybody else," Walters said.
St. George and Walters may have a different mental approach to pitching, but one thing is glaringly clear about each of them: they love to compete.
“Just the competition really, I mean you can go and throw a bullpen by yourself but you’ll never have that feeling like when you’re just staring down this other girl 43 feet away from you,” Walters said of what she missed most while COVID-19 shut down sports.
St. George relishes her time in the circle as well, and when she is in her competitive mindset, her thoughts are “kind of violent” as she dissects the best way to carve her way through opposing hitters.
The luxury of having two elite pitchers with full faith in each other’s abilities is that the one who is not in the circle can provide support in more ways than one from the dugout, and since the two have such good chemistry, all St. George has to do is mouth advice to Walters, and the latter understands without any sort of verbal communication.
Sometimes the support comes in the moral sense, with the one in the dugout cheering on the one pitching. Other times, the support is more technical, especially when one leaves the game and the other enters. Walters and St. George are both able to share inside tidbits of what strikes the umpire is giving and which players are struggling with certain pitches, and that’s not something many college rosters can say they have.
“[St. George and Walters] also have seen that the programs that are successful have more than one great pitcher in the circle and so they wanted to support one another and bring out the best in each other which they’ve really done a great job of doing,” Young said.
Regardless of the way Duke’s season ends this year, it will already be going down in the Blue Devil history books as a success, and a large part of that is thanks to the right arms of St. George and Walters.
The duo has combined to pitch 79% of Duke’s innings, and that number is only going to increase as the Blue Devils get started in the regionals against UNC Greensboro this Friday.
At this point, the only question is which of St. George or Walters is going to get the start, but if we’ve learned anything from this past season, it’s that whether Young opts to go with the yin or the yang, UNC Greensboro is going to be in for a tough time at the plate.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.