by Bob San
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
When Sydney Smith was asked what is her best pitch, a pitch she would use when she needs a big strikeout, the Maple Grove High sophomore pitching standout thought for a few seconds and said, “My best pitch is probably the next one I throw.”
Even though she is only 15, Smith already has the savvy of a wily veteran when it comes to the craft of pitching. Not only does she possess an array of pitches ranging from fastball to change-up, she also knows that you don’t tip your hand to your opponent standing in the batter’s box or opponents who may be watching you in the stands.
Smith’s maturity as a pitcher is easy to understand when you consider the fact that she has been playing with or against some of the top high school softball players in the nation for the past four seasons.
Smith started playing fast-pitch softball in fifth grade and joined the OMGAA Storm in sixth grade and played for two years. She then moved on to the Minnesota Renegades, a premiere metro area team, for the next two seasons.
“I didn’t start realizing I was good, or getting better, until eighth grade,” Smith said. “In eighth grade I went from okay to like really good. I realized I could go to the college that I wanted when I joined the Renegades. They kind of set me up.”
Smith excelled with the Renegades. She led the U14 Renegades to back-to-back ASA Nationals and earned a fourth-place finish last year, the best ever showing for a Minnesota team. She earned an invitation to play in an all-star tournament January 2012. At the tournament, Smith was invited by the owner of the Chicago Beverly Bandits to join his team.
It was an offer Smith could not refuse. The Bandits is one of the top club teams in the nation whose main goal is to bring together some of the top high school players in the nation, showcase their talents in tournaments or workouts in front of coaches and scouts of some of the elite softball programs in the country and help the players secure softball scholarships.
“The team is ranked in the top five in the nation. You have to be invited to play for them,” Smith said. “My coaches’ job is to get the girls scholarships and we go to a lot of tournaments where the college coaches are.”
Smith joined the Bandits in August 2012. Playing for the Bandits is a great privilege few high school softballers enjoy but it also involves sacrifices on Smith’s part. The Bandits practice year round with the high school season and December the only months off. That means that each weekend during the school year Smith and her parents, Mike and Stephanie, would make the round-trip drive from the Twin Cities to Chicago and back.
“During the fall/winter we would leave our house every Saturday morning around 6 a.m. and return from Chicago Sunday around 9 p.m. after pitching practice and team practice,” Mike Smith recalled. “This is dedication to a sport that in my opinion is above normal. She sacrificed and dedicated so much and we are so proud of what she has done.”
The sacrifices are well worth it. As a member of the Bandits, Smith was able to display her pitching prowess in front of coaches of the top college softball programs.
“She pitched this fall and in the stands there were four of the head coaches from last year’s College World Series to watch her pitch,” Mike said. “She has had some great exposure and delivered when she was suppose to.”
Not long after Smith started playing for the Bandits, her stellar performances drew the attention of many elite college softball programs. Several offered scholarships. Smith visited 13 schools during last summer and fall and committed to Louisiana State University (LSU) last fall.
“I really like the coaching staff, the campus and the academics is exactly what I am looking for,” Smith said.
Smith has a great fondness for second-year LSU head coach Beth Torina, a former pitcher for the University of Florida who led the Tigers to the 2012 College World Series in her inaugural season at LSU.
“They really are a good team. The way they do things and the way she coaches is perfect,” Smith said. “Her philosophy and the way she teaches the girls how to pitch and hit is what I’ve been taught. It just fits.”
In sports such as basketball and football, top athletes can wait until their senior season to decide on their college choice. Not in the very competitive world of elite collegiate softball.
“On the elite softball programs, all the scholarships for the Class of 2015 (this year’s high school sophomores) are already committed,” Mike explained. “They are working on the Class of 2016 now. Girls who want to play at the very top echelon have to be prepared mentally and physically to be able to make that decision. So the colleges work very young, so girls have to get themselves into position early on to be seen by these colleges. Otherwise they would make those decisions and move on. If you wait and you are not prepared the scholarships will be gone.”
Maple Grove softball coach Jim Koltes said Smith is the first Crimson softballers to accept a Division I softball scholarship.
Smith is happy and relieved she has decided on her college and she is ready to lead the Maple Grove Crimson into the 2013 season. She was on the varsity last season but played mostly as the designated hitter as senior Cayli Sadler, who won Player of the Year honor, was the No. 1 hurler.
“She was a great pitcher and a good role model for me to see how she played on varsity because I was so young,” Smith said. “It would have been nice to pitch more but she was a senior so it was her time to pitch.”
This season, it’s time for Smith to pitch. Her notoriety in the softball circle means that teams will be digging in extra hard to beat her. Koltes knows Smith has immense talent but urges fans to not have undue expectations for her.
“She is a very good talent. She has a lot of potentials but she is a sophomore still, so people need to curb their expectations,” Koltes said. “If she is better than everybody expects then great. But she is a sophomore. She is 15 and you are pitching against 18-year-olds and sometimes it can be a bit different because some of those kids are very talented. We have been blessed with having some great pitching over the years and Sydney will be something special for the next three years for us. She is that good, everybody knows it so they will all want to have a crack at her so she will have to be tougher in games.”
Smith seems undaunted by the challenge of being the team’s No. 1 pitcher this spring.
“I like being in the middle of the field and everybody is counting on you,” she said.
Contact Bob San at [email protected]