SOFTBALL: Freshmen making their marks on the area

By Steve Knapp, SunCoast Sports

There was a time in high school sports when freshmen spent their first year on the bench as they watched the sophomores play on the junior varsity team. They often were the target for older players’ pranks. They were sent to the office to get a “key for the batter’s box,” or were told to ask a janitor for a “left-handed hammer” to drive nails back into the dugout benches.

Those days have gone the way of the nickel candy bar, as 10 area freshmen are not only on varsity softball teams, but they’re starters. These players are not just pinch runners or late-game defensive replacements, they start and play key positions like pitcher and catcher.

Olivia Hernandez and Ali Eugenius from Port Charlotte, along with Bailey Grossenbacher and Christain Chandler from Lemon Bay, are freshmen making huge contributions for their teams.

Charlotte and North Port have three freshmen each with Kaitlyn Hopper, Alyssa Opsahl and Kerstyn Shaw playing key roles for the Tarpons while Ashley Nelson, Nadia Playter and Liberty Pence have proven indispensable for the Bobcats pitching staff.

Several girls said they cried when they were told they made varsity. Others expressed doubt that they could compete on that level. Another claimed to be as white as a ghost when she heard the news and her mother asked if she was sick.

There are common themes to each player’s success.

They talked about such things as love of the game and desire to be the best they can be. They are dedicated and willing to work hard to improve, which includes extra practice, camps and showcase tournaments as often as possible. Support systems such as family and coaches also play a big part to becoming a freshman starter on a varsity team.

FAMILY AND COACHES

“My mom and grandma are my rock,” Hernandez said. “They are my biggest fans. My mom works three jobs and has been the glue that keeps my softball career together. Without their extra efforts I wouldn’t be where I am today. I love them so much.”

Nelson has a different aspect on the family support system.

“I was kind of born into this,” she said. “My dad played minor league baseball so he took me outside a lot to work with me and train me. That kind of individual attention builds you and makes you develop faster and become a better player earlier than others might.”

Bobcats teammate Pence also has a father who was an athlete.

“My dad played a lot of sports and baseball was one of them,” she said. “I remember the first time I told him I wanted to be a pitcher. He told me that it is a lot of work and I was going to have to work very hard at it. I played softball every chance I could. I played travel ball, recreation ball and was on a school team.”

Grossenbacher also credits her father for her rapid advancement.

“My dad has taken me to many places where I can get better like being on a travel team and going to a pitching coach,” she said. “He’s taken me to many showcase tournaments where I get to play against all really good players. I’ve always done extra work so if I did more work than other players then I’d have success that others wouldn’t have.”

Added Chandler: “I started at a young age and practiced every day and I went to travel ball and that has helped me out a lot. I’ve been to showcase tournaments and camps which have been very helpful. There you get to know what the college coaches are looking for. You have to play a lot of softball to be good at it.”

DEDICATION AND LOVE

Playter pointed to a dedication to the game as a big difference in her development.

“You need a lot of dedication to this game,” she said. “You have to love playing it. I started young at about 7 or 8. It’s taken a lot of time to get where I am now. I don’t want to slow down or be content with what I can do now.”

Eugenius is another who believes in total dedication.

“What has gotten me to where I am is my dedication and hard work. It’s my love of the game,” she said. “I can’t be satisfied with where I am today. I have to continue to work hard and continue to look forward to be even better. If I stay the same then somebody could be working harder than me and be better. Softball is my life.”

Added Hernandez: “There is always someone out there who says I’m going to be better than that person so you need to keep working every day. I started playing summer ball, fall ball and travel teams and softball has become the biggest thing in my life.”

THOUGHTS OF COACHES

Charlotte coach Greg Higgins talked about the dedication his three players have for the game.

“They all play other sports and I like that, but when they aren’t playing another sport they’re playing softball,” he said. “They have that extra drive and desire to be better, and as a coach that’s something you can’t teach. I asked them to take a little time off after their other sports and rest and take care of any injuries that they might have before softball season starts. They said they can’t do that.

“They just have that desire and drive to continue playing and get better. All three have the chance to be something really special. I’m more excited about this group of freshmen than I have been for a long time.”

Dennis Bell, in his third year as head coach at North Port, is happy to have such a talented group of freshmen playing for him.

“It’s nice to have three pitchers with this kind of talent, and I have two or three more on the JV team with this kind of talent, too,” Ball said. “These three girls are the main reason we’re where we are this year. They throw strikes and allow our defense to work behind them.

“The kind of things these girls have done, like competing against girls who are older and some of the best players in the area, I can’t ask for anything more from them. I couldn’t be any more proud of them.”

KEY CONTRIBUTORS

The freshmen all have made strong contributions to their teams.
Chandler, Eugenius and Hopper are catchers. It’s a tough and demanding position, and for a freshman to be able to play there and be a team leader on the field is an outstanding achievement for someone only 14 or 15 years old.

The group of rookies show up well on the list of the area’s statistical leaders through Sunday.

Nelson and Pence stand third and fourth, respectively in earned run average and are tied for third in wins with seven each. Grossenbacher is fourth in strikeouts and fifth in ERA.

Five of the top 18 hitters are freshmen with Nelson and Grossenbacher both in the top 10. Nelson and Opsahl are tied for fifth in home runs in the area.
Eugenius is leading Port Charlotte in RBI.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to hit against the older girls this season, but I just kept practicing and working hard and now I’ve got 13 RBIs,” she said.

Those were some of the key elements shared by all of the freshmen on becoming a good player — practicing, working hard and being dedicated.

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