Softball: Long road to the top

By Gus Bode

Ashley Hamby could always make her teammates smile. On game days or on rainy bus rides, she would be the first to crack a joke or tease someone for wearing their pants too high.

But no one wearing Saluki maroon laughed on one April afternoon in 2006 when the SIU softball team took on conference rival Illinois State.

Least of all Hamby. Instead she displayed the same icy cold expression she sported each time she stepped to the mound.

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There would be no smart remarks, celebrity impersonations or movie quotes from Hamby that afternoon. The Saluki pitcher struggled heavily that day, giving up five hits and seven runs in less than two innings. After one of her pitches struck a Redbird batter, SIU coach Kerri Blaylock pulled Hamby in favor of freshman Katie McNamara.

With the 8-6 loss, Hamby and the Salukis squashed a chance to gain ground on eventual Missouri Valley Conference champ Illinois State. The Salukis ended up clipping the Redbirds in two of the three contests that series, but later finished third in the conference. In this loss and even in some victories, Hamby got pulled from the mound.

As she stood in the team’s dugout, Hamby said she hurt inside, but she wouldn’t let anyone know it. Instead she kept her disappointment within. Hamby’s emotionless expression masked her struggles, the same way her 8-1 record that spring hid her 5.40 ERA against conference opponents. Hamby didn’t pitch like the solid ace who thundered strikes past summer league and high school batters in the Saint Louis area.

“Ashley doesn’t point fingers. Ashley doesn’t blow up,” Blaylock said. “I know it was hard for her. She knew she was struggling at times. But she did what a great athlete does, she came back and she proved how good she is.”

Few could have predicted the dramatic turnaround that would follow. As a senior this Spring, Hamby has catapulted herself into the upper echelon of the Valley’s pitching ranks, helping lead No. 19 SIU (36-9) to one of its best seasons in the program’s history. Hamby sports a team-best 1.47 ERA, 118 strikeouts and allows a conference-best .173 opponents’ batting average. The right-hander has also pitched two no-hitters and thrown six shutouts this season.

“I think those rough times made her a stronger pitcher now.” – Ashley Hamby’s father Chris Hamby

“She was the best pitcher I ever faced or played with,” said catcher Amanda Clifton, who plays the same position for Hamby’s summer league team. “So for her to struggle for three years and get where she is now, that was more of a mental and emotional battle than probably anyone else on our team has had.”

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A highly recruited thrower from the outlying Saint Louis suburb of Arnold, Mo., Hamby’s intimidating stature and powerful arm drew the recruiting interest of schools like Kansas, Georgia and Georgia Tech. But she chose SIU for the chance to be coached by a former pitcher in Blaylock and because her parents only had a two-hour drive from Saint Louis to see her play.

But little did she know her chances to play as an underclassman would be few. At the time, SIU had one of the nation’s best hurlers in Amy Harre and Cassidy Scoggins emerged as the successor. When Hamby got her chances, sometimes she would be pulled from the mound. In another contest that same month against Indiana State, Blaylock pulled Hamby again after only three innings. Hamby gave up five hits and three runs that contest and eventually Scoggins came in as relief to secure a 5-3 win.

“She knew she was struggling at times. But she did what a great athlete does, she came back and she proved how good she is.” – SIU coach Kerri Blaylock

“When you go into a ballgame and have to be taken out because you’re not completing a game it’s very, very frustrating,” Blaylock said. “Part of it comes from me not giving her many opportunities her freshman and sophomore year. I’m so proud of her because she stuck it out here. I kept telling her it’s about a career, not a year.”

That’s not to say Hamby pitched horribly. In fact, by most pitchers’ standards, Hamby pitched very well with an 18-3 overall mark and 2.16 career ERA in her first three seasons. But the mark didn’t reflect her inconsistencies in crucial games and the contests where she had to be relieved.

“I had good pitches. I had good location. I had good off-speed.” Hamby said. “My confidence wasn’t there. If someone hit a couple runs in the first inning, then I really didn’t know how to come back.”

She realized her days on the mound were numbered. Hamby spent years passing on dances, parties, and trips to the mall to stuff as much softball in her system as she could. Hamby didn’t want the last memories of playing the sport she loved to be bad ones.

She dealt with setbacks the only way she knew how: hard work. She lifted weights before the sun rose. She tirelessly practiced her change-up and curve ball. A promising summer with the Saint Louis Sluggers travel team and working on a new inside screwball boosted her confidence.

During winter practices, teammates and family began to sense a change in Hamby. She began throwing the ball harder. The “pop” from the catcher’s mitt fielding her tosses popped louder.

When Hamby began whiffing pitches past Saluki teammates during fall and winter practices, teammates sensed Hamby would have a big year.

“In the winter she started throwing a new pitch: a backdoor curveball,” Clifton said. “I couldn’t hit her. I told her this is the first time you’re throwing a pitch I couldn’t hit.”

When the spring season began in February, a different Hamby emerged. Her pitches zipped with more velocity. She began getting ahead in the count. She didn’t give up the early score – things she struggled with during her junior year. But most importantly, her confidence and swagger returned.

Perhaps the most powerful statement of Hamby’s turnaround came on a sunny afternoon in Houston against softball power Louisiana State. The Tigers came in boasting a No. 5 national ranking, riding an 11-game winning streak and one of the country’s top hitting lineups.

In this contest Hamby again gave up an early lead, but this time, didn’t cave. Trailing LSU 2-0, the senior settled down and continued to battle the Tiger batters, giving SIU one of its signature wins of the season 8-5. An emotionally exhausting contest, Clifton said Hamby’s calm and fearless demeanor inspired her teammates.

“She wasn’t intimidated,” LSU coach Yvette Girouard said. “That’s a quality a pitcher better have.”

Hamby (15-3) has had it this spring, especially against ranked opponents. She went on to earn wins against Florida State and North Carolina. On a Saluki team already brimming with talent, Hamby’s development means double trouble for opponents facing Hamby and Scoggins, the reigning MVC Pitcher of the Year.

“It’s huge,” Blaylock said. “The way Ashley’s throwing the ball, it’s easy to play defense behind somebody like her and Cassidy. They throw a lot of strikes. They get ahead of the count. It makes the defense better. It makes the offense better.”

Finally the old Ashley has returned.

“She never gave up,” said her Dad, Chris. “I would usually try to tell her what she can live through or survive makes her stronger. I think those rough times made her a stronger pitcher now.”

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