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Softballs have been flying out of prep parks


1:00 AM, Apr. 01, 2014 EDT

When Miranda Young steps to the plate on any given Tuesday afternoon, outfielders begin shortening their steps to the fence.

A hush generally falls over the stands in anticipation of something special happening.

More often than not, it does. Young, a 4-year starter for the Airline Lady Vikings, has sent six balls out of the park so far this season, second only to Northwood's Jenna Rae Blythe, who has sent eight balls packing. Young and Blythe are putting up big numbers, but they are just part of what appears to be a growing number of softball players "going yard."

Whether you term them jacks, taters, dingers, bombs, or you get one with the bases loaded for "a grand salami," home runs have always been the most transcendent part of the game.

And with about two weeks remaining in the 2014 softball season, several teams have already totaled double-digit homers with more teams on the verge of surpassing the mark.

According to coaches and players, reasons for the surge are varied -- pitchers moved farther away, better and more consistent weight training, quality individualized instruction and exceptional equipment are part of the recipe.

"It's become more of a hitters' game and there are more people hitting home runs. Some of the best pitchers around are getting home runs hit off them," Haughton coach Leanne Shanks said. "Even some players in the bottom of a team's lineup are hitting them out. If you leave a fat pitch over the plate it's going out."

For players like Blythe, the difference between being just an average hitter and one that will play at the next level at UT-Tyler means going the extra mile.

"Honestly, it comes down to the fact that no matter how tired I am, or how much I don't feel like practicing, I just push myself harder," Blythe said. "And I haven't cheated myself any when it comes to practice all year -- and it really shows up in the games."

When the Louisiana High School Athletic Association voted to move the softball pitching mound back from 40 to 43 feet in 2011, it created instant offense and gave pitchers immediate headaches.

Area teams posting double-digit power numbers are Calvary (13), Haughton (12), Airline (11), North DeSoto (11), Northwood (10) and Cedar Creek (10) based on statistics emailed to The Times.

"I am seeing more home runs by younger and smaller players. Our middle school players have hit several this year," Lady Griffins coach Lori McFerren said.

"Bats are not only very hot, but all the kids have at least one -- sometimes two -- $300 bats in their bags."

McFerren saw a DeSoto Parish eighth grader, Shelby Brown, hit an opposite field homer at Stanley earlier this season.

"It wasn't her first by any means, and she probably weighs just a little over 100 pounds," McFerren said.

Among other local players with at least three dingers are Parkway's Haydn Parker, Calvary's Marissa Reed and Kenzie Glover, North DeSoto's Stephanie Easter, Airline's Katie Smith, Haughton's Anna Dies, North DeSoto's Maddie Burchell and Caddo Magnet's Katie Bakalis. Haughton freshman Lacey Dodson has blasted five home runs.

"Lacey is very strong with great bat speed and is one of the best athletes we've had on our team," Shanks said. "She sees the ball very well and has good hand-eye coordination. She just has the whole package."

Young has seen her homer numbers explode this season after hitting just one last season and none as a sophomore. She attributes the change at least in part to working with Centenary assistant softball coach Amanda Busby, who played at UT-Tyler and ETBU.

"She boosted my confidence more than anything," Young said. "She made me realize that if I get up there and do exactly what I'm supposed to, there's no reason I shouldn't hit the ball."

And young doesn't walk up to the plate with "hitting it out" on her mind, because that often ends in a pop-up or a strikeout.

"My thought process is to get on base with whatever works -- a base hit, a walk, if I'm hit by a pitch, home run -- when I get up there, it's whatever happens," Young said. "As long as I put a good swing on the ball, then I'm happy."

Like many area teams, Airline coach Lynne Roberts said her squad made a commitment to spending the summer in the weight room and conditioning.

"Coach Danny Roberts started working with the girls individually in the summer and fall perfecting their swings," she said. "We as coaches knew that if we would be successful hitting, then we would win lots of games."

Shanks, who is second all-time at Louisiana College for home runs hit in NCAA Tournament games, said it's not always clear why more youngsters are experiencing the fun.

"Hitting is like a puzzle -- you have to put the pieces together," she said. "A batter has to see the ball well and timing is everything. If a pitcher throws 60-plus MPH, you just have to put the bat on the ball."

When Young nailed a couple of homers last week against Caddo Magnet, she was greeted at the plate by multiple slaps on the helmet from her teammates. That's a feeling she wants to experience a few more times this spring.

"It's exciting because it's energy that runs through the entire team," she said. "I don't even know how to explain the feeling."

 

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