Casey Stangel is a senior-to-be pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012 and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Casey Stangel headshot
Courtesy of Casey StangelCasey Stangel
As my summer season came to an end, it was a very sad time for me because softball was all over for the year. That said, I am coming into one of my favorite seasons of softball (because there is never an offseason). The season I am talking about is what I call my “rebuilding” period. Most players out there are taking some time off right about now. Here are some good tips and things to do to stay at the top of your game without actually playing the game!

Yoga: I have found that as I get older, I get a lot more sore. Yoga is huge for me because while I am letting my muscles heal from the pounding over the whole year, I get to stay flexible and active. I recommend doing yoga up to three times a week to stay functional and flexible. It also gives you a great core workout and works muscles that softball players don’t typically use.

Pilates: As a softball player, the majority of our motions are rotational, so core is huge. I think a lot of players overlook how important it really is. During this rebuilding period, tear up your core workouts, and Pilates is a great way to do it. A one-hour class will leave your midsection feeling stronger, and it will also focus in on muscles that we don’t normally focus on using.

Long-distance running: Nobody wants to do it, but it’s a very important element of your overall athleticism. It will also help break up some of the lactic acid that has built up in your muscles from all the work over the spring and summer. I recommend starting around 25-30 minutes, and then adding 5 minutes every other run. Push yourself, but know your limits.

Swimming: Swimming is such a great workout because it is easy on your joints and it is total cross training from a normal softball player’s workouts. If you are lucky to live by a lake, swim along a shoreline for 30-45 minutes, or in a pool at the gym, and that should be around one mile. It is a fantastic full-body exercise that will leave you feeling tired but not torn up.

Mix up your cardio: Running up and down all of the bleachers at your high school football field, and then around the track continuously for 30 minutes is a different workout that will be challenging but not overwhelming. Sprints up hills are good as well, targeting different muscles that will help with explosiveness. Dynamic workouts in the sand (High knees, high skips, long jumps, shuffles, lateral jumps, karaokes, etc.) are awesome as well.

Working your body out beyond playing catch, taking ground/fly balls, hitting and pitching is huge during this period. Find your weak muscles, and make them stronger. Work on flexibility and break up all of the soreness that you have from the long summer season. Just because you are taking time off of softball doesn’t mean you can drop your endurance and athleticism.

Remember, to be the best, you have to outwork everyone else!

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog -- on playing without fear -- here.

Casey Stangel: Join me on Fearless Field

July, 20, 2012
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Casey Stangel is a senior-to-be pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Casey Stangel headshot
Courtesy of Casey StangelCasey Stangel
I am a person who likes to be OK all the time. I never want anyone to see that I am struggling, upset, hurting or anything of the sort. I am a grinder, and I will just keep going and going no matter what until I am done. This is definitely both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because I will always give my best effort all the time no matter what and keep fighting until the end. On the other hand, it is a huge weakness because I don’t want to admit that I am going through hard things.

Take last year’s high school softball season. Living in my small town, everybody knew who I was. Our team went undefeated the year before, I committed to Missouri and I was a Gatorade Player of the Year. I had some big accolades behind my name, which brought some big expectations for my season. Everyone was really watching now, and I was on the stage.

The funny thing is, I still felt like I had something to prove.

Never play with the mindset that you have to prove yourself as a player, because then you are just playing with fear. I would go into every game tight, with unrealistic expectations. If one person got a hit, I was angry, and that isn’t right because hits are going to happen. I felt that everyone expected me to have a perfect game every time, and go 4 for 4.

I needed to relax and just play, and if I would have, those stats were possible. But not if I was out there trying to do it.

It should not matter what anyone but you thinks about your performance. If you know that you gave all the effort you had, and had a great attitude through it all, then there is no more you can ask for. If you are preparing yourself off the field correctly, and working harder than everyone else, then you have nothing to worry about.

As newspaper reporters asked me if I was worried about high expectations, I said absolutely not. I told them that I wouldn’t buy into everyone else’s expectations, and I would just go play. But the truth of the matter is I did buy into it, and I didn’t just go play. I was not intentionally lying to these people, but remember I have the “nothing will ever bring me down” attitude, so I couldn’t even admit to myself that I had a problem until after the season was over and I analyzed it.

Learn from me when I say that you will never enjoy yourself if you are caught up in trying to impress everyone and play with unrealistic expectations.

There were very few games that I truly had fun and played with joy because all I wanted to do was strike everyone out and say “See, look what I can do!” That is not what the game is about. It is about playing with love, and playing with passion and seeking victory through hard work.

My team lost the state championship game, and the second it was over I had a sense of relief. Everyone knew I wasn’t perfect that day, and it was OK. It didn’t make me a worse player, and it didn’t mean I didn’t work harder than everyone else; I just didn’t win that one.

As I look ahead to my senior year, I have one focus for the entire season. To win a state championship? No. I have learned that winning is out of my control, but my effort is not. My goal for the year is to be a fierce competitor through every second of the games. To not worry about the scoreboard, or what the paper will say or what people will say about me. That stuff is out of my control. All I want to do is to compete with everything I have, and come at people full-force saying, “Here I am, try to stop me.” With that attitude, everything I wanted so badly the year before will come naturally.

So to all of you amazing, talented athletes reading this, forget the expectations and play. Don’t worry about the outcome, play in the moment and play with a strong competitive nature. People are going to put you down if you win every game, and they will do the same when you lose. But that really doesn’t matter.

When you are playing for expectations instead of playing with passion, realize it and tell yourself to stop. I know that I will, and I hope you will, too.

Trust me when I say the game is so much better when you are playing on a fearless field.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog -- on her approach after making her college decision -- here.

Casey Stangel: Stay committed

July, 16, 2012
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Casey Stangel is a senior-to-be pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012 and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Casey Stangel headshot
Courtesy of Casey StangelCasey Stangel
Softball players are committing earlier and earlier these days. By the time we’re 15 or 16, we are deciding our path for the future, and that is a lot to put in the hands of a freshman or sophomore in high school. Some players commit for the right reasons, and others for the wrong reasons.

In one of my previous blogs I talked about choosing the right school for you. There are a lot hard decisions to make, and when you finally make your choice, it’s a great feeling.

But sometimes when girls commit, they take on the mindset that they are done. Committing early gives us about two years to either excel in our play, or sit in cruise control because there is no worry -- you’re not playing with your future on the line, you have your scholarship, all the worry from a recruiting aspect is gone. The question now is, what are you going to do with the time between your commitment and the fall that you step through the doors of your university?

Develop your skills
Players often catch coaches’ eyes because of the potential they have. Potential is a great thing that a lot of young athletes have, but potential is nothing if you don’t develop it. When I committed to Missouri, the thing I really needed to work on was my rise ball. I did not have one at all, but I had the potential to develop it. Over my 2 -year period between the time I gave my verbal commitment and the time I had left in high school, I had the choice to learn a new pitch, and I took it. A lot of the time players think that they are good enough, and once they verbal they don’t need to get better. The fact is that you now have bigger expectations to get better, and it is time to get going.

Keep your foot on the gas
You often see players go into a relaxation mode; they are committed to their school of choice, and now they think it is time to relax. I could name 5-10 girls who I know personally who had the potential to be All-Americans at a young age. Once they committed, though, they relaxed on their training, cut back on tournaments, and basically let go of their work ethic. Once you commit, you need to be working harder. You are not at the end of your path. In fact, the only thing you have done is decided which path you are on, and now it’s time to start on your journey down it. Make sure you always remember how badly you wanted to beat out every other girl to get to the school you are going to. Remember the “look at me” attitude you played with for coaches to see, and the extra sprints you did at the end of practice to be one step ahead of everyone else.

It is a job
Kids my age always try to give me a hard time because I don’t have a job, but then I explain to them that I do. When I go to work, I have shorts, a T-shirt, tennis shoes, and my ball bag. My job has a lot of different activities such as pitching, hitting, infield/outfield work, yoga, speed training, strength training and Pilates. I work every day of the week for varied amounts of time. My paycheck? A college education. Keep in mind that your coaches are paying you to go to school and perform. You better be working hard every single day to keep your job, because you can get fired real quickly if you slack off. The best part of it, though, is with all the work we put in, we have the best job in the world. Playing the sport you love and representing your school is something that not many people get to do, so don’t take advantage of that.

Making the decision of which college path you are going to take is so incredible and exciting. Never take your accomplishment for granted. Always remember that once you make that choice, it is time to start working harder because you are now accountable to yourself, your team, your coaches and your university.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog -- on softball sacrifices -- here.

Jim Piazza: National Coach of Year

July, 13, 2012
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Jim Piazza has coached Ohio's winningest softball program for the last decade.

And during that time, the mentor of Keystone (LaGrange, Ohio) cites a "family atmosphere" among the players, parents, fans and boosters.

"I sometimes feel like I'm coaching 18 daughters on the team,” he said. “It's a close-knit group that dates back to when they were 8-year-olds on a local travel team."

Piazza was referring to the eight senior members of the 2012 Wildcat team that posted a 32-0 record and won the school's third Division II state championship in 13 trips to the Final Four since 1992.

For guiding Keystone to an unbeaten state title and No. 7 ranking in the final POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings, Piazza has been named the ESPNHS National Coach of the Year.

"Any recognition is a reflection on how dedicated and focused our team was on achieving our annual goal of winning a state title," Piazza said. "After finishing as runner-up (in 2011) with eight underclass regulars, our players were determined to go all the way this season."

In 2011, Keystone bowed in the state finals 4-0 to Poland Seminary. This season, the Wildcats avenged that loss by the same 4-0 score in the state semifinals before ending the 22-game win streak of Greenville in the finals with a 7-2 win.

"We had great senior leadership with six four-year starters," Piazza said. "And five seniors will go on to play in college."

ESPNHS Softball coach of the year
Courtesy of Keystone High SchoolJim Piazza
Those five include two first-team All-Ohio selections and Akron University recruits –- right-handed pitcher/first baseman Kenzie Conrad and shortstop Erin Pond. The others are second team All-Ohio catcher Bri Buckley (Ashland) and a pair of Cleveland State recruits in second baseman Alisha Silva and outfielder Alyson Broschk.

Conrad, the Gatorade State Player of the Year and an ESPNHS first-team All-American, was an all-around player and lead pitcher with a 25-0 record, 0.74 ERA and 178 strikeouts in 142 innings. She also went 66-5 for her career with 470 strikeouts and a 0.77 ERA. At the plate this season, she batted .485 with 44 RBIs, 16 doubles, two triples and a team-high 11 home runs.

Keystone set a state record with 45 homers, obliterating the total it set last year with 35.

Conrad had 24 career homers, two more than Pond, who batted .509 with nine homers, 12 doubles and 47 RBIs and was a second-team ESPNHS All-American.

"With the numbers these girls have produced, and what they've accomplished, this is the best Keystone team ever," Piazza said.

That's high praise considering the tradition and history of the program, which has gone 286-35 since Piazza took over in 2003.

Piazza’s teams also have advanced to the state Final Four six times with a title in 2006 and two runner-up finishes in 2004 and 2011. Piazza's last four teams have gone 117-11.

Overall, Keystone has won more than 700 games, best in the Buckeye State.

"Our players and fans know the history and tradition of the program," Piazza said. "They all take pride in it and set high goals every year. Our players were focused from the start this season and went the distance. They deserve all the credit."

30 players named ESPNHS All-Americans

July, 12, 2012
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California high school softball,Cal-Hi Sports Athlete of the WeekJohn T. Thorsen/ESPNHSNancy Bowling of Royal went 25-3 this past season with a 0.43 ERA and 246 strikeouts in 163 innings.
SEC schools Alabama, Auburn and LSU all landed two future softball players among the 30 who are first-team 2012 ESPNHS All-Americans. The only other college to have two on the first team is Stanford.

POWERADE FAB 50 national champion Norco (Calif.) is represented with one player on the first team and one player on the second team. The only other schools with two ESPNHS All-Americans are No. 3 Red Mountain (Mesa, Ariz.) and No. 7 Keystone (LaGrange, Ohio).

FIRST-TEAM CATCHERS

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSTaylore Fuller
Taylore Fuller, Chiefland (Fla.) Sr.
The Class 1A State Player of the Year posted some eye-opening numbers at the plate. A Florida recruit, Fuller batted .778 with 14 home runs, nine doubles, six triples and 33 RBIs while scoring 52 runs for the small school program. She also is one of the nation’s highest-ranked college prospects at the catching position.

Cali Lanphear, Montgomery (Texas) Sr.
Recently named the Class 4A Player of the Year by the Texas Sports Writers Association, Lanphear also is the 2012 All-Montgomery County Player of the Year. She nearly led the Bears to the state final for the first time in school history. As a power hitter, there were few in the nation like her as she smacked 21 homers with 64 RBIs and batted .600. Lanphear has signed with Texas A&M.

Janelle Lindvall, West Ranch (Valencia, Calif.) Sr.
The Oregon-bound standout hit .524 with six home runs and 28 RBIs to earn all-state and all-region honors. Her junior season hitting stats were better, but she excels in all other facets of the position and plays in one of the toughest leagues in Southern California.

FIRST-TEAM PITCHERS

Nancy Bowling, Royal (Simi Valley, Calif.) Sr.
A California standout since she was named State Freshman of the Year in 2009, Bowling concluded her career by going 25-3 with a 0.43 ERA and 246 strikeouts in 163 innings. She bounced back from a left knee injury that caused her to miss one season and is regarded as one of the top incoming recruits at Arizona. Bowling, who already has been named the Los Angeles Daily News Player of the Year, also had a .366 batting average with 20 RBIs.

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSLilly Fecho
Lilly Fecho, Glenbard North (Carol Stream, Ill.) Sr.
The 6-foot, left-handed pitcher went 27-3 this season with a 0.88 ERA and had 254 strikeouts in 192 innings. The Gatorade State Player of the Yearalso batted .393 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs while scoring 28 runs. Fecho will play next at Purdue.

Tori Finucane, Bishop O’Connell (Arlington, Va.) Jr.
The Gatorade State Player of the Yearled the Lady Knights to a 27-1 record, a Virginia Independent Schools' title, and the No. 43 ranking in the final POWERADE FAB 50. A Missouri recruit, she was 27-1 on the mound with a 0.09 ERA and 332 strikeouts in 161 innings. She also batted .363.

Erin Gabriel, Poland Seminary (Poland, Ohio) Sr.
The four-year starter and Tennessee recruit led the Bulldogs to a 26-3 record and No. 21 ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50. A two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year as a sophomore and junior, which were the same years the Bulldogs won the Division II state title, Gabriel compiled a 16-2 record this season with 232 strikeouts and batted .461 with 28 RBIs and 35 runs scored.

Holly Kern, Plano East (Plano, Texas) Sr.
A force in the circle and at the plate, she was named District 8-5A MVP and Dallas Area Player of the Year by Dallas Morning News. Kern led the Panthers to the Class 5A state semifinals. In the circle, she went 33-4 while at the plate she hit .365 with 10 home runs and 47 RBIs. She is headed next to the University of Texas.

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSChelsea Wilkinson
Madi Schreyer, Woodinville (Wash.) Jr.
Named the Gatorade State Player of the Yearin Washington, she helped lead the Falcons to the Class 4A state championship and a perfect 26-0 season. In addition to her own perfect record of 21-0, Schreyer’s ERA of 0.28 also was exceptional. She also whiffed 189 batters in 123 innings. Schreyer already has committed to Stanford and also already is a member of the Canadian Junior National Team.

Chelsea Wilkinson, Alexander Central (Taylorsville, N.C.) Sr.
The four-time all-state selection and two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year as a sophomore and junior makes the ESPNHS All-American team for a second straight season. Although the team didn’t win another Class 4A state title, it did finish 28-2 and was No. 6 in the final POWERADE FAB 50. A Georgia recruit, Wilkinson was 24-1 this season with 333 strikeouts and a 0.26 ERA. She also set two state career records with 112 wins and 84 shutouts while striking out 1,406 batters.

FIRST-TEAM INFIELD

Bianka Bell, Chamberlain (Tampa, Fla.) Sr.
The Gatorade State Player of the Year led the Chiefs to a 27-5 record and the Class 7A title. The team also ended at No. 12 in the POWERADE FAB 50. The shortstop and LSU recruit posted big numbers with a .731 batting average, 11 homers, 35 RBIs and 52 runs scored. She batted .727 in the playoffs alone.

Emily Carosene, Pine Castle Christian (Orlando, Fla.) Sr.
She’s a very rare seven-year starter as she goes to a school and plays in a state in which seventh-graders and eighth-graders can play on the varsity. The Auburn recruit and Central Florida Player of the Year put up huge numbers for the Class 2A state runner-up team. Carosene batted .645 with 14 doubles, 10 triples and seven homers. She also had 24 RBIs while scoring 51 runs. She played on three state title-winning teams.

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSSierra Romero
Nikki Girard, Chino Hills (Calif.) Sr.
The CIF Southern Section Division III Player of the Year led the Huskies to a 32-3 record and No. 9 finish in the final POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings. Girard, who is headed to Arizona State in the fall, had a .423 batting average with seven homers, 12 doubles and 37 RBIs. She’s been a four-year starter and set school records for runs scored, hits, doubles and RBIs.

Sierra Romero, Vista Murrieta (Murrieta, Calif.) Sr.
A finalist for the California Ms. Softball Player of the Year, Romero also earned herself a spot in the state record book as she hit 21 homers, the second-best single-season total. Romero, who also had 45 career homers, hit .556 with 38 runs scored, 23 walks and 54 RBIs. She will be headed to Michigan next season.

Lindsey Schmeiser, Northern (Owings, Md.) Sr.
The Washington D.C. Metro Player of the Year led the Patriots to a 25-0 record, a record fifth straight Class 3A state title and the No. 17 ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50. The Maryland recruit also batted .641 with four homers, 34 RBIs and 49 runs scored.

Allison Stewart, Olathe East (Olathe, Kan.) Soph.
One of just two sophomores to earn a first-team All-American selection, Stewart was assured of such a high honor by leading Olathe East (24-1) to the Class 6A state title and being named Gatorade State Player of the Year. She set a school record with 52 RBIs and also hit .532 with five homers. As a pitcher, she added a 13-0 record with 118 strikeouts and a 0.20 ERA. Stewart has committed to Arkansas.

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSDarian Tautalafua
Kelsey Stewart, Maize (Kan.) Sr.
The “other” Stewart from Kansas to land on the All-American team happens to be one of the top 10 major college prospects in the nation. Kelsey racked up eye-popping totals with her bat – a .649 average, 12 homers, 65 RBIs -- and was amazing in the field. She is headed next to LSU.

Melissa Taukeiaho, Etiwanda (Calif.) Sr.
Before heading to the University of Washington, Taukeiaho earned her second straight all-state selection and also has been named All-Inland Valley MVP. She scored 41 runs and drove in 39 and also finished with 16 homers and a .543 average. Taukeiaho also had five wins inside the circle for the Eagles.

Darian Tautalafua, Carson (Calif.) Sr.
After hitting 15 home runs as a junior, Tautalafua hammered 17 homers as a senior and tied the state career record with 53. She also batted .490 this season, scored 50 times and knocked in 45 runs. Tautalafua was named the CIF L.A. City Section Player of the Year and will play next at Long Beach State.

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSKayla Bonstrom
FIRST-TEAM OUTFIELD

Kayla Bonstrom, Canyon del Oro (Tucson, Ariz.) Sr.
The Arizona Daily Republic Big Schools Player of the Year could have been listed in the multi-purpose category since she was the top pitcher for her team in 2012, but she’s mostly known as an outfielder and that’s where she’ll play next season at Stanford. Bonstrom led Canyon del Oro, which finished 13th in the POWERADE FAB 50, to the Division II state championship by hitting a two-run homer in the top of the eighth inning of the final game against Sunrise Mountain (Peoria, Ariz.), and then she retired the side in order. Bonstrom finished the season with a .603 batting average, ripped 16 homers and also had 18 doubles and 63 RBIs.

Steph Hartness, Niceville (Fla.) Sr.
The Class 6A State Player of the Year led the Eagles to a 29-3 record, a state runner-up finish, and a No. 34 ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50. A Florida State recruit, she batted .518 with four home runs and 36 RBIs.

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSAndrea Hawkins
Andrea Hawkins, Bay City (Texas) Sr.
Rated by some experts as the No. 1 prospect in the entire nation, this talented outfielder will be headed to play for Alabama next season. During her senior season, Hawkins hit .539, and during her final two seasons of high school ball, she struck out a total of just two times. As a senior, she also stole 34 bases. She was recently selected to the Class 4A All-State Team by the Texas Sports Writers Association.

Haylie McCleney, Mortimer Jordan (Kimberly, Ala.) Sr.
The Gatorade Player of the Yearin Alabama and the Alabama Sportswriters Association Player of the Year batted .692 for the Class 5A state runner-up. The Alabama recruit also had 90 hits, including nine home runs with 64 runs scored and 65 stolen bases. McCleney struck out only once during her entire senior season.

FIRST-TEAM MULTI-PURPOSE (Hitting, pitching, fielding)

ESPNHS All-American softball
ESPNHSVanessa Alvarez
Vanessa Alvarez, Archbishop Mitty (San Jose, Calif.) Sr.
After being named player of the year for the second straight season by the San Jose Mercury News, Alvarez is headed to Cal where she could play second base. Her pitching helped Mitty finish 28-2 with a No. 8 final FAB 50 ranking. She went 25-1 with a 0.86 ERA and 197 strikeouts. At the plate, Alvarez batted leadoff and shined with a .450 average and .491 on-base mark.

Kenzie Conrad, Keystone (LaGrange, Ohio) Sr.
The Gatorade State Player of the Year and Akron recruit led the Wildcats to a 32-0 record, a Division II state title and a No. 7 ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50. She was 25-0 on the mound with a 0.74 ERA and 178 strikeouts. She also batted .485 with 11 homers and 44 RBIs.

Lexi Davis, Porter Ridge (Indian Ridge, N.C.) Sr.
The ESPNHS National Player of the Year and Gatorade state honoree pitched every game for the 33-1 Class 4A state champion Pirates. The team also finished No. 2 in the POWERADE FAB 50. The Auburn recruit, four-year starter and three-time all-state choice posted a 0.23 ERA and batted .450 with eight homers and 42 RBIs.

Emily Lockman, Norco (Calif.) Sr.
Lockman’s 0.35 ERA may be surpassed by other top pitchers around the nation, but none of those pitchers faced the type of opposition that Lockman did. Her pitching and hitting led Norco (31-2) to the 2012 FAB 50 national title and she already has been selected as the Ms. Softball Player of the Year for the state. Lockman also shut out more opponents (22) than batters were walked (11). As a batter, she shined with a .389 average and had four homers and 30 RBIs. The 4.0 GPA student-athlete will play next at Nebraska.

ESPNHS softball All-American
ESPNHSErica Nunn
Breanna Macha, Red Mountain (Mesa, Ariz.) Soph.
Despite being just a sophomore, Macha pitched like a senior as she was named to the All-Arizona first team by The Arizona Republic. Leading the Mountain Lions to their second straight state championship, a 35-3 record and No. 3 ranking in the final POWERADE FAB 50, Macha went 14-2 as a pitcher with a 1.24 ERA. At the plate, she hit .440, drove in 47 runs and hit 10 home runs.

Erica Nunn, Holly Springs (N.C.) Sr.
The four-year starter and South Florida recruit helped the Golden Hawks to a Class 4A state runner-up finish. She was 22-5 on the mound and struck out 335 batters. At the plate, she hit .612. Career-wise, the left-handed pitcher won 73 games with 1,068 strikeouts.

Heather Stearns, Hebron (Carrollton, Texas) Sr.
Before heading to Baylor next year, Stearns was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Texas as the Hawks reached the Class 5A Region I finals. At the plate, she hit .415 with 15 home runs and 41 RBIs, which included a four-homer game in a 13-4 win over Pilot Point. In the circle, she went 18-9 with a 1.29 ERA and struck out 313 batters in 190 innings.

SECOND-TEAM CATCHERS
Katie Browne, Zachary (La.) Sr.
Erin Shireman, Lutheran South (Pearland, Texas) Sr.

SECOND-TEAM PITCHERS
Maryssa Becker, North Medford (Medford, Ore.) Jr.
Lindsey Fadnek, Coalfield (Tenn.) Sr.
Johanna Grauer, Amador Valley (Pleasanton, Calif.) Soph.
Cheridan Hawkins, Anderson (Calif.) Sr.
Katie Marks, Katy (Texas) Sr.
Samantha Martin, Chiles (Tallahassee, Fla.) Jr.
Taylor Nowlin, Sunrise Mountain (Peoria, Ariz.) Jr.
Shelby Turnier, Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Sr.

SECOND-TEAM INFIELD
Bryanna Blanco, Maryville (Tenn.) Sr.
Kelsey Dominik, Kingsway Regional (Woolwich Township, N.J.) Sr.
Gabrielle Maurice, Johansen (Modesto, Calif.) Jr.
Erin Pond, Keystone (La Grange, Ohio) Sr.
Alex Powers, Eau Gallie (Melbourne, Fla.) Sr.
Kylie Reed, Norco (Calif.) Jr.

SECOND-TEAM OUTFIELD
Kylie Johnson, Kankakee (Ill.) Sr.
Siera Phillips, Red Mountain (Mesa, Ariz.) Sr.
Natalie Sheffey, Daniel Boone (Gray, Tenn.) Jr.
Megan Sorlie, Andover Central (Andover, Kan.) Sr.
Katie St. Pierre, Flower Mound (Texas) Sr.

SECOND-TEAM MULTI-PURPOSE
Alyson Ambler, Walla Walla (Wash.) Sr.
Brooke Boetjer, South Putnam (Greencastle, Ind.) Sr.
Katie Brignac, John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, La.) Soph.
Briana Combs, Ladywood (Livonia, Mich.) Sr.
Kristen Davenport, Deer Park (Texas) Sr.
Kelsey Nunley, Soddy-Daisy (Tenn.) Sr.
Nisa Ontiveros, Ridgeview (Bakersfield, Calif.) Sr.
Kenedy Urbany, O’Connor (Northside, Texas) Jr.

Lexi Davis: National Player of the Year

July, 11, 2012
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Lexi DavisCourtesy of Lael RorieAuburn recruit Lexi Davis pitched every game for Porter Ridge and posted a 33-1 record, including 22 shutouts.

There was one constant during the first softball state title run for Porter Ridge (Indian Ridge, N.C.).

Lexi Davis was in the cirlce for all 34 games.

The result: a 33-1 record, a Class 4A state championship and the No. 2 spot in the final POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings.

For her performances as a pitcher and as a batter, the Auburn University recruit has been selected the ESPNHS National Softball Player of the Year. Players from the handful of states that conduct softball as a fall sport were not considered for the award.

"That's awesome," Davis said when informed of her selection. "Our team felt we had some unfinished business this season and we really bonded together to close the deal with the school's first state title. This is icing on the cake and I'm very grateful."

The 6-foot-1 right-handed pitcher has been a dominant player for four seasons, but the Pirates couldn't pocket a state crown until this year. Last spring, they lost in the state playoffs to eventual champion Alexander Central (Taylorsville, N.C.). This spring, they avenged the state quarterfinal loss with a 1-0 win over an Alexander Central team that was ranked No. 6 in the final FAB 50 and was led by two-time state player of the year Chelsea Wilkinson.

"That win was the first of two straight games which were keys to our season," Davis said. "The next playoff game was our only loss (4-1 to North Davidson) and was our wake-up call that we had to stay focused to achieve our main goal of a state title."

The Pirates rebounded from their only loss of the season in the best-of-three semifinal series with wins of 2-1 and 1-0 over North Davidson before posting two 2-0 wins in the one-day finals over Holly Springs (N.C.).

Davis and her teammates played nine playoff games in 22 days with wins over teams ranked No. 1, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 in the final regular-season state poll. Porter Ridge was ranked No. 2 behind defending champion Alexander Central.

The National Player of the Year ended the season with a 33-1 record, 22 shutouts and a 0.23 ERA. The three-time all-state choice and Gatorade State Player of the Year as a senior also led her team at the plate. She hit .450 with eight home runs and 42 RBIs. She was one of only two seniors -- along with shortstop Haley Secrest -- in the underclass-dominated lineup.

"Our team has had some tough losses the last couple of years," Davis said. "We were sort of on a mission to go the distance this year and get the state title. It was the result of a lot of hard work by our team as we improved and grew together. I wouldn't change anything that's happened to us this season."

The softball diamond isn't the only place Davis excels. She maintained a 3.89 GPA in the classroom and plans to major in pre-medicine, specializing in biomedical science, at Auburn.

Casey Stangel: Give it up for softball

July, 9, 2012
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Casey Stangel is a senior-to-be pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012 and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Casey Stangel headshot
Courtesy of Casey StangelCasey Stangel
Being an athlete requires a lot of commitment and a lot of sacrifice. From a young age we are faced with decisions that can either make or break our careers. Whether it is choosing one sport to play or missing out on a birthday party to go to a tournament, you have to makes decisions for your future.

When I was younger I played soccer, and I absolutely loved it. I enjoyed that you could go one-on-one with someone and be physical to get the ball and score. I dig the aggressiveness of the game, and since my mom was a Division I soccer player at UCLA, it was in my blood.

When seventh grade hit, I was faced with a decision to either pursue my soccer career or my softball career. If I was going to fully commit myself and try to win national championships, I had to choose between the grass and the dirt. Well, I realized you have to run less if you hit the ball over the fence, so I went with softball. All joking aside, I knew softball was my passion, and it was what I was meant to do, so I put away the shin guards and bought some new bats. Quitting soccer was a hard thing for me, because I really loved it, but at the end of the day I would do it again. This was really the first big sacrifice I made for my softball career, and little did I know there was much more to come.

I have to believe that high school just isn’t the best years of your life. Are they some awesome learning years? Heck yes! But definitely far from the best. I say this because I have missed out on a lot of high school activities, and I am for sure not scarred for life.

When you are an athlete, you are on a much different path than other kids in school. You are in the small percentage of kids with a plan that you are working hard at every day, and when high school came around I faced my biggest bunch of sacrifices.

You will rarely catch me out past 10:30 p.m. with my friends because I have training in the morning. You will absolutely never find me at a party or hanging out with people who have a reputation for doing bad things. Friendships were a big sacrifice because even though some people are awesome and fun to be with, they are not on the same path as me. Beyond the friendships comes missing out on dances, or football games, or other school functions because of tournaments. I am now a senior in high school, and I have never been to a homecoming dance because we always have a tournament that weekend. It kind of stinks to miss out on these things, but at the end of the day I am missing out to pursue my dreams.

The day-to-day sacrifices are my favorite; they make you strong. Things like getting up early to train vs. sleeping in or having a salad vs. a huge McDonald’s burger. These commitments are the ones that separate the players from the athletes.

I love the feeling of being up in the early hours, grinding out a hard workout and mentally driving my body beyond pain, beyond reason, to the point of exhaustion. The mental and physical sacrifices that you have to make on a daily basis are why I love the sport, because you have to push your limits when nobody else is watching.

Even though you may not be at the rivalry football game, you might have a game-winning hit that you remember forever. If you leave a friend’s house at 10 vs. 1 a.m. because you have early training, don’t worry. Nothing good happens after midnight anyway. Sometimes you have to miss things that seem important in the moment, but at the end of the day they really are not.

Remember that when you graduate you will have memories of home runs and pushing yourself to your physical limits. You will gain so many life lessons when everyone else will just remember partying hard and freezing their butts off at a football game.

Sacrifice is hard, but when it’s for what you love, I promise you it is so absolutely worth it.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog -- Burn the Ships! -- here.

Casey Stangel: Just saying

June, 29, 2012
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Casey Stangel is a junior pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Casey Stangel headshot
Courtesy of Casey StangelCasey Stangel
Notre Dame football has “Play like a Champion Today,” and Oregon has “Win the Day.” Within big sports programs, it is common to find a team motto or saying that the athletes keep in their minds to remind them of what they are working for. It keeps them focused and drives them to be champions.

Although I am not a part of my college program yet, I have a motto that I look at every day when I play, and it reminds me to give it 100 percent and go all-out. “Burn the Ships” is written on the thumb of my left batting glove, and before every swing, I take a deep breath and read those words.

There are many versions of the story, but here’s the one I was told that inspired my motto:

The English and the Romans had been at battle with each other for many, many years, but each time the Romans would dominate. The English would sail in to shore and climb up a hill to the battlefield, but each time the Romans would see them coming and slaughter them, so the English would go back to the ships and retreat. The English continued to sail in, climb up the hill and fight, get defeated quickly, and retreat.

Over time, the English got a new leader who had different tactics. They sailed into the Roman shores prepared to fight, just as they always had. This time before they climbed up the hill, their leader burned all of their ships. The soldiers were outraged and confused. As they sat and watched the ships in flames, their leader said, “We will go and fight all-out, there is no turning back now. We will either conquer the Romans or die, but no matter what, we will not retreat.” They went at the Romans harder than ever, and for the very first time they won.

When I am playing the game, I want to always have a do-or-die attitude. Playing 100 percent will leave you knowing that win or lose you gave it your all. Don’t make excuses or give up when it gets hard -- don’t retreat when your opponent starts to beat you. You have to keep battling through the hard times, and stay at the top of your game.

For example, my team is playing in the Boulder Independence Day tournament this week. On Wednesday, I had a bad game; my pitches were off and I hit very poorly. I never stopped trying, and never broke focus, but I just didn’t have my best stuff. Going into Thursday, I could have remembered that Wednesday was bad and I could make excuses about my pitching if my opponent began to beat me.

I took a different approach.

I wanted to redeem myself, and give everything I didn’t have the day before. I came into the game and threw a no-hitter and I went 2 for 3 with a single and a home run. What I learned is not that I was better on Thursday, but that I never gave up and I made my adjustments.

When you give it your all through the good times and the bad times, you will make the adjustments needed to be successful. Some days are bad and some games don’t go your way. Throughout the game I am always reminded to “Burn the Ships” and go all-out, never looking back.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog – lessons from a MLB draftee– here.

Casey Stangel: MLB draftee shares tips

June, 22, 2012
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Casey Stangel is a junior pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012 and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Casey Stangel headshot
Courtesy of Casey StangelCasey Stangel
I had the opportunity to sit down recently with a baseball player named Kyle Johnson. Kyle graduated from my high school four years ago and went on to play at Washington State. As a senior, Kyle led the Pac-12 in stolen bases, and was a key player for the Cougars at the plate and in the outfield. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 25th round of the 2012 MLB draft. I have the utmost respect for Kyle, and I know with all of my heart that he is going to be extremely successful in his professional career. Before he left town for training, he sat down to talk with me about college and the big things that he learned throughout his career. There was so much sensational information that he shared with me that is going to be huge for my college career, but that is also extremely useful now.

The first thing he started with was having a good approach. Baseball and softball are very mentally demanding games, and it’s easy to get caught in a mental slump. You can be on at the plate, tearing it up going 4 for 5 consistently. But eventually you don’t have a good day, then another, then another and you’re caught in a jam. You’re overthinking every swing, and when you step into the box you are uncomfortable and worried about not producing. You start changing your approach and start overanalyzing and dig a ditch deeper and deeper with every at-bat. This is so common, and it is very hard to find a solution. Kyle gave me some great insight into how he dealt with this in college, and it all comes back to having a strong approach.

Every time you get in the box, it should be the same. Your approach is consistent and you are going through the same routine. For example, when I prepare for an at-bat I take three steps away from the box and scan the outfield. I look to see where they are set up and where I should look to drive the ball. Next I take two steps in and take one swing. I then hold my bat up and look at my left batting glove, where I have written a personal saying. Next I take a deep breath, and step in with my back foot, then my front foot tapping the plate twice. I move my bat over the plate a couple times, bat loose in my fingers, and come set. Every time. Having consistency in how you get in the box and how you breathe keeps you focused and relaxed. When you are going through your routine every single time with solid focus, you feel comfortable, as if you have been here a thousand times before.

With every pitch you receive you have to make the decision to swing or not. Clearly when you get a hit, your at-bat is over. But when you do not get a hit (or an out), you must step out and immediately let go of any negative part of the last pitch. You can’t go into the next pitch thinking “man I should have swung at that,” because before you know it the next ball is by you. Staying calm throughout an at-bat and staying consistent in your approach is so huge and something that all elite hitters do.

The second thing he told me was, “When my life outside of baseball is in order, my baseball is in order.” Things like being organized in school, keeping good relationships with your friends and family, or even eating right. These are all parts of your “other” life, and when everything else is going good, you bring no outside stress or emotion to the game. Kyle's example to me was that he woke up and made his bed every morning. It was a sign of respect and organization for his home life, and when that one thing was in order, it helped him keep other things in order. When you can go into a practice or a game with nothing else but playing on your mind, you are setting yourself up for success.

These may seem like two small and idiotic things to worry about. To some they may be, but I view these pieces of advice like golden tickets to success. As an athlete you must set yourself up to be successful at every turn, whether it is when you are stepping in the box or cleaning your bedroom. Your mind must always think “I want to be successful,” and you must make a constant effort in every aspect of your life to make it happen.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog – on three crucial innings – here.

Norco claims national championship

June, 21, 2012
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For a quick answer to the question of why the Norco (Calif.) softball team may have been unmatched in the nation this season, no words are necessary. Just point to the infield. All four positions were manned by players who are headed to major colleges.

The list includes junior Kylie Reed (Cal), junior Taylor Koenig (Tennessee), sophomore Ashley Goodwin (Ohio State) and sophomore Savannah Clark (Colorado State).

The Cougars, of course, also had Nebraska-bound senior Emily Lockman in the circle. She posted a 0.35 ERA and also hit .389 with 33 RBIs. Reed, meanwhile, put her name into the state record book by collecting 66 hits and batted .550.

Norco's girls, plus coach Rick Robinson, picked up their FAB 50 national championship gear during a presentation on Monday. They also obviously top the final FAB 50 rankings of the season, becoming the seventh team from California since 1997 to finish in the top position.

This week's final rankings resulted in just one new team going onto the list -- unbeaten Massachusetts state champ Milford -- and there also were several teams that moved up or down a few notches due to more careful examination of each team's wins and losses.

Click here for the final rankings of the 2012 season.

Tragedy precedes triumph at Hillcrest

June, 15, 2012
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Courtney RobertsCourtesy of the Roberts family"Something my dad used to tell me all the time was that it's really good to have softball," says Courtney, pictured here with her mom and her dad. "It has just become an escape for me because you get tired of being sad all the time."

Kim Givens was having a rough day.

Stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire last summer, the fourth-year head coach at Hillcrest (Simpsonville, S.C.) spotted help in the distance. Approaching Givens was Paul Roberts, a well-known club softball coach in the area and father of Courtney Roberts, one of Givens' prized players at Hillcrest. When Paul got out of his car, he walked up to his daughter's coach and said, "We're winning state this year."

No hello, nothing about the flat tire, just a bold statement about the Hillcrest softball team, which was still months away from starting its season.

But from the first fall practice of the year, Givens noticed a different Hillcrest team than the seven teams before it, each of which had won the district title but floundered in the state playoffs.

"The drive mentally was not always there," Givens said. "They said they wanted it but I don't think deep down they really did. Before this season, though, you could tell a difference. They were willing to practice a little longer, they had a little more determination. I could tell as a coach that this could be the year."

On the girls went throughout the winter months and into the start of the season in the spring, placing extra emphasis on practice and with a newfound dedication to each other and the team's mission. They wanted a state title, and this time they truly meant it.

It was at one of these practices, however, that the team would be faced with a new challenge, one so daunting that it alone threatened to destroy the team's entire mission. On April 9, Courtney's grandparents came to the field to tell her that her father, Paul, had died suddenly of a heart attack.

"That was one of the toughest things that I've ever had to deal with," Givens said. "I had 26 little girls looking at me, and you can't tell them it's going to be OK."

It was especially tough for someone like Givens, who always tells her players that she's a "fixer," and encourages them to approach her with any problems. So when one of the players walked up to her in tears and asked how to make the situation better, Givens responded, "I'm so sorry, I can't fix this. I can't make you feel better."

Preparing for the postseason suddenly became secondary to Courtney and her teammates, many of whom had a travel-ball connection to their suddenly distraught teammate's father. One day, Paul was sitting behind the backstop holding up his pointer finger, telling them they were No. 1. The next day, no one. Paul's passion for softball and support of the girls were left to memories and imagination. Remarkably, Courtney fought through the tragedy with a courage only found in the strongest of guts. And it showed on the field.

HIllcrest softball
Courtesy of the Roberts family/ESPNHSCourtney Roberts stood tall and strong during the playoffs and helped lead Hillcrest to a state title.
Givens said that Courtney's attitude and continued commitment to the team kept everyone upright.

"They could have easily said, 'Why are we playing ball?' I always tell them that the best play in softball is the next play, and Courtney just kept going to the next game, and the next day. Dealing with softball became a metaphor for dealing with her life."

Mere days after her father's death, Courtney was leading Hillcrest again, first to the district championship, but then into waters previously unchartered for the school. After districts, they won their region, and then started steamrolling competition in the state tournament. All throughout, Courtney had elevated her performance (and her riseball) to heights that simply baffled opponents. In a game against Mauldin (S.C.), she was perfect. In another against Boiling Springs (S.C.), a two-hit shutout.

"Something my dad used to tell me all the time was that it's really good to have softball," Courtney said. "He said this is something I could do if I had a bad day, and it has just become an escape for me because you get tired of being sad all the time."

No one will ever know if Paul Roberts' death was responsible for injecting this team with the mental fortitude Givens thought it lacked in years past. Nor will anyone be able to decipher if the tragedy guided Hillcrest to the South Carolina AAAA state championship game, in which Courtney shut out Carolina Forest (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) in a 6-0 win. But what we do know is that Paul's presence -- and then his absence -- made everyone affiliated with the Hillcrest softball team grow.

"Did Courtney pitch like she pitched in the playoffs because her daddy died?" wondered Givens. "Maybe. But that's my team, and I saw that determination this year even before Paul died. But I will say the girls' strength and determination shined a lot brighter because of it."

Much like the stickers on the back of the Hillcrest batting helmets will tell you, the championship run was dedicated to Paul Roberts. But deep down, the girls know that their talent, courage and perseverance also played pivotal roles in the championship season.

"I think we still would've won state if it hadn't have happened, but I think it made it all worthwhile," Courtney said.

Especially on this Father's Day weekend, that'll put a big smile on her daddy's face.

Ladywood looking to make late charge

June, 13, 2012
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There were many weeks early in the season when FAB 50-ranked Ladywood (Livonia, Mich.) was listed with a 0-0 record. The Blazers got such a late start due to poor weather.

Now, most of the nation has finished with softball state playoffs, but Ladywood is still going.

Ladywood advanced to this week's Division II state quarterfinals with an easy 13-0 win over Center Line (Mich.). They meet 28-8 St. Clair (Mich.) next and hope to be in the state finals this weekend.

Other than Michigan, the only other state championships in softball still to be determined will be this weekend in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

There were few changes in this week's rankings, and next week's rankings will put a wrap on the season.

Click here for the complete Week 15 rankings.

Geri Ann Glasco sticking close to home

June, 13, 2012
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It was an atmosphere of heightened excitement that a tourism bureau salivates over. Earlier this month, Oklahoma City aroused the jealousy of even the country's premier metropolises.

On one side of the city, you found the Oklahoma City Thunder hosting the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA's Western Conference finals, where superstars crowded the hardwood as they vied for the most coveted prize in their sport. Across town was the Women's College World Series, the mecca for softball players, coaches, parents, fans and families who immerse themselves in what is one of the fastest-growing women's sport in America.

One father and daughter undertook a 16-hour drive from Watkinsville, Ga., to partake in the softball festivities. Both have backstories that aren’t quite typical of the average ticket-holders.

In the driver's seat was Gerry Glasco, father of three girls who all grew up playing softball. Glasco is the associate head softball coach at the University of Georgia, and he was hoping to be on a flight with his team to Hall of Fame Stadium. Instead, his Bulldogs lost a hotly contested battle with Tennessee in the NCAA Super Regionals, and days later Glasco was booking his own hotel room and pulling in and out of rest areas on I-40 en route to the WCWS.

Geri Ann Glasco
Courtesy of the Glasco familyGeri Ann Glasco went 19-0 during her senior season at Oconee County (Watkinsville, Ga.).
Next to Gerry was his youngest daughter, Geri Ann, a highly touted senior pitcher from Oconee County (Watkinsville, Ga.) who will play for her dad at Georgia next fall. As Geri Ann unpacked in her Oklahoma City hotel room, she couldn’t help but hope that there's a black and red jersey in her suitcase next year.

And, perhaps thankfully for both father and daughter, Geri Ann's arm and bat might help dictate the Bulldogs' path back to softball's Graceland.

As a senior at Oconee County, Geri Ann set the Peach State ablaze last fall with a dual-threat repertoire that so many top-tier college coaches covet nowadays. From the circle, she was rarely touchable, compiling a 62-8 record and a 0.91 ERA over her four-year career at Oconee that culminated in a perfect 19-0 senior campaign and a state championship. At the plate, Geri Ann was just as successful, hitting for average (.480) and power, setting Georgia state records for both homers (47) and RBI (177). On Wednesday, she was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year.

"One thing that's amazing about her is her work ethic," said Gerry. "She'll just go hit on a tee for 45 minutes every night before bed. And she never gets burned out because all of this work she does is because she wants to do it, not because someone else is telling her to do it."

One catalyst for Geri Ann's drive and determination might have been her constant need to impress a much older softball contingent. When she was 12, Geri Ann found herself playing on 16-and-under travel teams where conversations centered on where her teammates were going to play college softball. Geri Ann didn't even know what high school she would attend. A year later, she found out. Gerry was offered a position on the coaching staff at the University of Georgia, and the family migrated south from Illinois.

For the next four years, Geri Ann lived a mere 10 minutes away from the field on which her dad's college team practiced. So she had the unusual opportunity to spend a lot of time, as a high school player, on a college softball field, practicing with Division I college stars like Alisa Goler and Taylor Schlopy.

And as her elder role models were busy making trips to Oklahoma City to compete in the Women's College World Series (Georgia made the field of eight in 2009 and 2010), Geri Ann kept dominating the high school scene, garnering scholarship offers from the most storied of college programs.

"She was invited to UCLA and Arizona and just about every other school in the Pac-12," said Gerry. "And she kept telling me that she didn't want to go and have to say 'no.' "

That was because, even as a sophomore in high school, Geri Ann had already made up her mind. With her mom battling breast cancer (she's cancer-free now) and her dad working just down the road, she wanted her future home to be as close as possible to her current home. In an era where it is common for high school stars and their families to visit upwards of 20 colleges, Geri Ann had only seen two, but she knew where she wanted to be. She quickly told Georgia head coach Lu Harris-Champer that she would love to be a Bulldog.

"I had never been on Georgia's campus until my sophomore year in high school, but as soon as they brought me on a visit and I saw campus I knew it was where I wanted to be," said Geri Ann. "It is a perfect combination of things. They have two of the majors I'm interested in (sports management and special education), it's close to home, and my dad will be my hitting coach and he knows my swing really well."

Gerry says a big part of Geri Ann's unabashed commitment to Georgia was the attention and care Harris-Champer showed the family.

"She's been like an aunt to her, and I think that, combined with how important her mom is to her, left little doubt of where she wanted to be."

Andrea Hawkins: Roll Tide

June, 11, 2012
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Andrea Hawkins just finished her senior season at Bay City (Texas), and she also plays for Texas Impact Gold. The center fielder has signed to play at Alabama. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Andrea Hawkins Texas Impact Gold
ESPNHSAndrea Hawkins
I just want to start off with a big Roll Tide Roll!

Ever since I was a child, I've always loved watching softball. During my freshman year, while I was visiting different colleges, Alabama really caught my attention -- I knew this college was something special.

Now everyone knows.

Ever since Alabama made it to the World Series, I could just picture the Tide winning the first SEC national championship. I came home every day that week and hopped on the couch ready to watch the games. When Alabama won the game that put it in the championship series, I knew I had to get together all my close friends to come over to watch with me. Even though I was away at freshman orientation in Alabama last Monday and Tuesday for the first two games, I still found a way to find a TV and watch the games with a lot of new friends I had just met.

The championship game was most exciting to me. I woke up Wednesday morning with the game on my mind. It felt like time was dragging! What made it even worse was the weather delay. All kinds of thoughts were going through my head. I wondered how the weather was going to impact the teams. Will they be pumped up? Since it was late, are they going to be tired? And then, finally, the game began.

My friend's dad invited my family over to eat and to watch the game. My emotions were all over the place. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire game. I would jump up and down and do a little dance every time a great play was made or Jackie Traina struck someone out.

Alabama made an amazing comeback in the fourth inning and it pumped me up even more. The only thing I was thinking was I hope I have the opportunity to experience this excitement next year.

In the seventh inning, my heart was racing. I didn't know what to think, but I had faith in my team. As soon as Jackie struck out the last batter, I jumped and screamed for joy!

It's such a blessing to know that I will be a part of such an amazing program. I can't wait to get back to Alabama in August to start this next chapter of my life.

Roll Tide!

Read the previous installment of Andrea’s blog – secrets of a slap hitter -- here.

Casey Stangel: Three crucial innings

June, 8, 2012
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Casey Stangel is a junior pitcher at Lake City High School (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) who also plays for the SoCal Explosion. She was named the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Idaho in 2012 and has committed to play college softball at the University of Missouri. She will blog for ESPNHS throughout the 2012 season.

Casey Stangel headshot
Courtesy of Casey StangelCasey Stangel
The first, the fourth and the seventh; they change a game. Every inning of a game is important, and must be filled with focus and effort. But these three innings are so huge to me and are what I consider game-changers.

The first

When you run out onto the field, it is time to make a statement. The other team gets its first look at you and they evaluate you. It is crucial to leave no doubt in the opponent’s mind that they have a challenge ahead. When I throw the first pitch, it has to pop, and from that moment forward, it’s on. A goal for me is to always get the momentum on our side in the first inning. When you go 1-2-3 through their hitters, it leaves a mark. The top of a lineup is typically the “igniters,” they are the people who are the strongest and really know how to get the job done. When you shut them down, it puts on a lot of pressure. On the offensive side of things, the first inning is when it really counts. When you are loud and get base runners on, it creates an energy and momentum that is critical in big games. When your team is taking some strong hacks and putting people on base in the first inning, it puts a lot of pressure on the opposing side.

The fourth

By now, you are more familiar with the other team’s hitters and their pitcher. In this inning, it is time to take all of the information you have gathered and hit the gas. I have found that this is where teams get lazy, because you’re halfway through and people are getting tired. The fourth inning is where I really tell myself to focus and work hard at spinning and spotting the ball on the mound. It is a point in the game when teams can steal back momentum, and that is the last thing I want to happen. Really pushing yourself, and upping your focus from this moment in the game forward, is extremely important.

The seventh

When you are training outside of games, and you are on your last sprints of the day, that is when you need to think seventh inning. You’re tired, emotions are all over the place, and the game is on the line. This is closing time, and it requires everything you have physically and mentally. As an example, in Game 2 of the Women’s College World Series, Alabama was up 8-1 in the seventh on Oklahoma. The second Jackie Traina stepped on the mound she needed to focus and put OU away. I felt like she did something that so many players do in situations like this -- she relaxed. In games like that, you cannot let up or lose focus until the last out of the seventh inning. Oklahoma showed its strong hitting skills and came back with five runs in the seventh. Opposite of Alabama, Oklahoma approached the seventh correctly and went all-out. Luckily for Traina, she got refocused and executed, leading her team to an 8-6 victory. Even players as amazing as Traina have these moments, and that is why I believe it is so important to practice them in every game.

If you are playing an exposure game that nobody is keeping score of, or if you are in the World Series in Oklahoma City, you have to play all-out. Seven innings of pure competing with the other team and never letting up. Have fun, be crazy with your team in the dugout; but when it comes time to do your job, make sure you do it with focus. Take every inning seriously – especially the first, fourth and seventh -- and you will never be disappointed.

Read the previous installment of Casey's blog – on the lessons she learned from her state championship loss – here.

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