CHAPEL HILL — When Danielle Spaulding steps onto the softball field, her presence is undeniable.
Opponents recognize the signature pre-swing flick of her bat or her unflinching stance on the mound.
Either way, the senior at North Carolina is expected to deliver. That wasn't always the case.
"We knew she pitched," Tar Heels coach Donna Papa said. "But to say that we knew at that time she would have the level of success pitching she has had? We recruited her as a hitter, and sometimes that's kind of embarrassing to say."
But left-hander has consistently delivered for North Carolina.
Early this season, Spaulding is 1-1 with a 2.06 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 17 innings for the Tar Heels (2-3). She is batting. 200. The Heels play Delaware on Friday at Chapel Hill.
Last season, Spaulding led the NCAA in strikeouts per seven innings with 14.3. She had 13 complete games and held opponents to a .124 batting average. She was 20-4 with a 1.44 ERA and was voted the ACC's player of the year for the second year in a row.
But pitching success isn't the only reason Spaulding is on the list of 50 players to watch for USA Softball's player-of-the-year award.
After recovering from a slew of injuries her freshmen year, Spaulding has been as formidable an opponent for pitchers as for batters.
In 2009, Spaulding led North Carolina to a 47-13 record while leading the team with 12 home runs and 45 RBIs. This past summer, Spaulding led the Austria Shax to the team's first European Cup victory. "She was pitching like crazy, and her hitting was unstoppable," teammate Anna Roberts said. "You knew sophomore year that she was going to be one of the best."
Spaulding, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., still recalls when she wasn't sure if she would be on the mound at all. Despite having pitched since age 7, she was approached by college recruiters as a hitter and first baseman.
A month before she arrived at UNC, she was astounded when the coaching staff asked her to join the pitching staff.
"I had gotten in my mind I wouldn't be pitching in college," she said. "I was excited because to put that into college, that was my ultimate goal."
Spaulding has not only established herself in the pitching rotation, she has done so in memorable fashion.
Her sophomore season, Spaulding pitched the first perfect game in ACC Tournament history in a 6-0 victory against Virginia.
"The spin and movement on her pitch is deceiving, as well as her rise fall," Papa said. "And now she's got an off-speed pitch."
During her time at UNC, the team has gone to the NCAA Tournament regionals every year but has failed to advance to the College World Series.
UNC ended last season in the NCAA Regional with a 4-2 loss against sixth-seeded Georgia. Spaulding hit a go-ahead two-run home run in the top of the fifth, but a two-run shot by Georgia in the seventh sent the Bulldogs to the super regional round.
Spaulding has high hopes for her final season.
"We talk about winning in steps," she said. "Winning the ACC Tournament. To take it a step further. I want to get past regionals. And take it back it further. I want to win the College World Series. Go and win."