When a coaching friend told Donna J. Papa about a softball player from Indian Trail, N.C. in 2014, he described her as a big hitter, a lefty and a pitcher.
Those were the only words that North Carolina softball's head coach needed to hear. Her interest was piqued. She made the drive to Raleigh to watch Brittany Pickett, then a sophomore, play for Sun Valley High School in the NCHSAA 3A state championship at the Walnut Creek Softball Complex.
“She didn’t disappoint,” Papa said. “She hit the ball hard, and they won the state championship. I felt like she was definitely someone that could progress through our program.”
In the game Papa watched, Pickett earned a win on the mound with five strikeouts. At the plate, she finished with two hits, one of which was a double. Her performance on both sides earned her the MVP as Sun Valley swept C.B. Aycock, 6-4, as part of a two-game series.
Luckily for Papa, UNC was the only school that Pickett visited, even after that performance.
“Living in North Carolina, that was everyone’s dream — to go to UNC," Pickett said, "and I really found that out while I was in high school. This was my number one.”
The 6-foot rookie racked up a number of accolades during her first season of playing at the collegiate level: ACC Freshman of the Year, All-ACC First Team and ACC All-Tournament Team. She had a .299 batting average and slugged 12 home runs, the second most on the team.
On the mound, Pickett went 22-10 with a 2.81 ERA in 221.2 innings, which wasn’t too shabby for someone who decided on a whim that she wanted to be a pitcher.
At age 11, Pickett realized that she was tired of playing first base, so she decided to switch things up.
One of her coaches had an open practice, where anyone who was interested in pitching could give it a try. Little did Pickett know that this was the start of the journey that would lead her to a D1 offer from UNC.
“I whaled the ball over the fence like five times and I thought that maybe it wasn’t for me, but I kept practicing,” Pickett said. “My coach said that I had some potential, but I didn’t see it. I thought that I was a terrible pitcher.”
It didn’t take long for Pickett’s future coaches to also recognize her true potential. They realized her pitching speed, and that became her main weapon for strikeouts. While in high school at Sun Valley, about 30 minutes outside of Charlotte, Pickett also started to mix up her speed and used a variety of pitches.
“When they told me that I could go D1, I thought that there was no way,” Pickett said. “There’s no way. From there, I started going to campus, and I worked my way to get to this position that I’m in now.”
Jessica Bowen, Pickett’s former hitting coach, is someone that she still keeps in close contact with while she is in Chapel Hill. Bowen isn’t surprised by the amount of success that Pickett has achieved.
“I had no question in my mind," she said. "That’s the type of player that Brittany is. The type of player that comes from a small town, a small school, and loves the game and loves to go to work.”
Pickett hasn’t always been a softball star.
Before she worked for countless hours on the softball diamond, she spent her time cheering and doing gymnastics.
“I got so tired of my mom pulling my hair into buns and ponytails,” Pickett said. “I told my mom that I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Whenever she’s not on the softball diamond, Pickett enjoys watching Breaking Bad on Netflix and hanging out with her pets. She has an English bulldog named Harley who she calls her “whole world" and recently adopted a cat, even though she didn't consider herself to be much of a cat person beforehand.
Although Pickett is only a sophomore, she already knows that she wants to be a professional softball player when she graduates. If she doesn’t go pro, she hopes to start a career as a nurse practitioner. Pickett is off to a good start, as she was an All-ACC Academic Team and ACC Academic Honor Roll selection last season.
“She’s always looking out for her teammates,” Papa said. “She takes care of people a lot, and I think that she’ll make a good nurse because her personality suits that.”
If she pursues her Bachelor of Science in nursing at UNC after she graduates, she’d love to be a volunteer assistant for the softball team. But if she isn’t in nursing school at UNC, she wants to conduct softball lessons somewhere.
Pickett’s talent might be intimidating to opposing pitchers and hitters, but, as a person, she’s far from that.
“Honestly, I don’t think that there’s enough time in the day to say what I think of Brittany,” Bowen said. “She is someone who has one of the biggest hearts that you’ll ever meet.”
Last year, Kendra Lynch was North Carolina's undisputed leader.
Lynch, one of just two seniors on last year’s squad, was able to spend more time hitting instead of pitching, thanks to the depth Pickett provided. It helped UNC in a number of ways: Lynch hit 21 home runs, and the Tar Heels made appearances in both the ACC Championship and the NCAA Tournament.
“We were right there, and we were so close,” Pickett said. “I think that was the best atmosphere that I could probably be in.”
Lynch took Pickett under her wing and helped to develop her into the player that she is now.
Things didn’t start out so easy for Pickett during her first year. The team traveled to Winthrop to play in a fall tournament, and Pickett had a rough outing in her first collegiate start. She was upset, but from there, she improved every week.
Her hitting developed, and she built confidence in herself. At first, Pickett was hesitant to push herself in the weight room, scared that others would judge her for failing. But when she saw her teammates failing at times, too, she realized it wasn’t anything to stress about and won the team’s most-improved award for strength and conditioning. All of this came under Lynch’s guidance.
“She was my go-to person,” Pickett said. “She was one of my closest friends last year. She probably made me the person that I was last year mentality-wise, because she was such a good leader. If I could play with her again, I definitely would.”
This spring, Pickett is without Lynch, and she will have to find a way to live up to the hype without her mentor.
“She really has to reinvent herself this spring,” Papa said. “When you have that kind of success, everyone knows your name and they know how you are and what you’re going to throw. So now she has to throw them a curveball.”
Pickett isn’t sweating it, though. She has an 1.71 ERA, 36 strikeouts and 11 hits as the 5-5 Tar Heels head into the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic this weekend in California.
With her résumé from last season, one thing seems certain: the ACC Pitcher of the Week honor that Pickett received after the team’s opening weekend in a Florida tournament won’t be her last.
“I love having her in the program,” Papa said. “I think that she’s All-American material, All-Conference material and all of that.”