Ready Ranger pitches upbeat attitude

Matthew Busch/The Herald
Forest Park’s Kayla Smith, center, has developed an odd routine she performs before every game. The senior center fielder has never pitched an inning in high school, but she warms up her arm to pitch before each game and tells coach Glenn Knies she’s available to pitch at a moment’s notice. Smith balances comedy and competitiveness, also boasting a .404 batting average.


By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

Kayla Smith has ignited a pitching revolution.

What began as a harmless gesture vying for a few laughs during Forest Park softball’s preseason conditioning has now, two months later, evolved into some very serious business.
It all started so innocuously.

“I just like to joke around, so I was like, ”˜Oh, I’ll pitch,’” Smith recounts ever so innocently. “And then I just did it, all the time.”

And with that, “Monica” was born.

First, let’s get one thing straight. Smith, Forest Park’s center fielder, leadoff hitter and one of four seniors on the team, has not pitched an inning of softball during her four years on the Ranger varsity team. Deterring to her brashness? Not a chance.

Ever since Smith began her impromptu bullpen sessions back in March, the routine has morphed into something beyond reason. For about 10 minutes during every practice and before every game, she warms her arm in anticipation of getting the nod.

It begins with short wrist flicks with her mainstay bullpen catcher, classmate and best friend Kayla Brahm, who’s a rightfielder by trade. Once that initial phase is complete, the two distance themselves from one another and the heat is revved up. Within a few minutes of some early softer tosses, Smith reveals her swagger and takes on the identity of her alter ego, Monica Abbott.

She begins her windup in a low crouch, precisely imitating the former University of Tennessee pitcher. She then abruptly leans back and raises her body before harnessing the energy and thrusting forward toward the delivery point, mirroring the NCAA Division I all-time leader in wins, strikeouts and a bevy of other categories.

The deliveries sizzle toward Brahm. Most target the strike zone, with the occasional “riser” that drifts over the catcher’s head. The two’s bullpen time Thursday before the Rangers’ game against Pike Central took place in front of Forest Park’s dugout, with coach Glenn Knies looking on.

“Do you see this right now?!” Smith asks her coach after delivering a spot-on fastball.

“I’ve seen it all year, Smitty,” Knies retorts, “and you still haven’t seen the mound.”

OK, so what if Smith hasn’t actually pitched this season? Or any season since fifth grade, for that matter.

“I wasn’t the best,” Smith recalls of those elementary outings.

Yet the unwaveringly supportive Brahm sees a bright future for her temporary outfield crony.

Brahm says Smith pumps speed comparable to most varsity pitchers. Sure, the accuracy still needs improvement — “Sometimes the people behind us have to watch out because it might go over and hit somebody in the head,” Brahm concedes — but the intangibles, particularly the intimidation factor, are what set Smith apart.

Brahm fears even the thought of an at-bat with Smith in the circle.

“I’d just walk out of the batter’s box and just throw the bat down and say, ”˜You got me,’” submits Brahm, who counts Smith as having seven or eight different pitches. “I wouldn’t be able to try.”

Once pregame tosses are complete, Smith dutifully informs Knies she’s fully geared up and is ready to step in at his command.

“I tell him I’m warm, so if he needs me in the game, I’m good,” Smith explains.

After games have concluded and the team wraps up its cool-down, Smith assures her coach that she’s taken the proper steps to unwind her dormant cannon.

The date of Smith’s debut remains unsolved. Brahm theorizes that Knies has been saving the raw arm for sectional the entire season. Knies remains hush on the matter.

What the 10th-year coach isn’t so quiet about is the impact Smith continues to provide the Rangers (9-10). Statistically, she’s furnished the lineup with bits of everything: a .404 batting average, .484 on-base percentage, .750 slugging percentage, team-highs of five triples and three home runs and 13 RBIs to complement a .923 fielding percentage as the outfield’s nucleus.

The general vibe that Smith’s character has helped create could be exceedingly valuable, Knies contends. Fueled by seeing Smith’s pitching persona, Knies now counts 14 of his players as “probable pitchers,” several of whom have devised their own regimen before games. The ballooning pitching staff has deeper meaning, too, Knies says.

“Sometimes you have great players that are quiet, and maybe they play the game better than any person on the field,” he explains. “But when you have someone like Smitty, that personality carries quite a bit farther, because when she speaks, people listen.”

For Smith, the idea behind the pitching, behind the goofiness, behind the laughs is simple: be yourself.

“The team is really fun to be around,” Smith says. “I couldn’t be who I am around them if they weren’t like that.

“I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. They’ve really let me be who I am. And we’ve all worked together to make this team what it is.”

The appreciation is mutual. Knies details how Smith’s approach, whether it be a fiery first at-bat or droll dugout antics, correlates to the team’s overall mindset. Smith is an opportunist, providing energy and ease whenever each is needed.

“The way she responds to situations is the way our team responds,” Knies says.

Mixing candor with comedy, Smith “always knows the solution,” Brahm says. “She always knows whenever it’s time to be serious or when it’s time to relax everyone.

“How impressed am I with Kayla Smith? I don’t even know that I could answer that question in one night,” Brahm says. “But I will say that simply, she has impressed me more than I ever thought she could. She really is just the ideal softball player through and through.”

Will Smith finally be afforded a chance to pitch? No one knows. But Monica will be ready.

Contact Joe Jasinski at jjasinski@dcherald.com.




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