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Softball: Leah Allen is the complete package

BaseballCollege SportsCollege BaseballKent State University

The phone and cable companies are always touting their bundles of technology wonders, from lightning fast Internet to hundreds of movies downloadable in seconds.

Selling Leah Allen as the top softball package in the county is a much easier task.

The Glenelg junior led her team in 12 offensive categories — everything from average (.526) and runs scored (32) to RBIs (25), on-base percentage (.570) and slugging percentage (.821) — and as a smooth, quick, fast-thinking shortstop, she is a defensive gem.

She has speed — she swiped a county-high 22 bases — and power, and led the league in home runs (7). Allen's the complete package and the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times softball Player of the Year.

The award is "very nice. I figured there were so many seniors who did big things that I didn't think it would be me," said Allen, a three-year starter for Glenelg who earned all-county first-team honors in both her freshman and sophomore years.

"I feared her," whether she was at the plate, at short, or on the basepaths, said Mt. Hebron coach Chuck Struhar. "If she got on first, she'd be on third" in a blink of the eye, he said. In the final game of the regular season — a contest Glenelg had to win to claim sole possession of its fourth county title in five years — Struhar said Allen "robbed us of two hits."

And yet, as good as she is, Allen, a captain, is always looking ahead.

"In her eyes, she hasn't plateaued," said her coach, Ray Gerstner. "She's always looking to improve herself, and not just herself, but all those around her. She's already looking forward to next year."

So Leah and her father, Harold, are on the road every Sunday — unless there is a tournament in Colorado, Chicago, Rhode Island, or some other faraway place. For three-and-a-half hours, they drive to New Jersey so Leah can practice for two-and-a-half hours with her travel team, the under-18 Jersey Inferno, which is among the top teams in the nation.

It's been a natural progression, starting when she first walked out on the field at 6, and joined an under-12 travel team two years later.

"I've worked hard and I feel it's paid off," said Allen, who plays outfield for the Inferno. "These girls are amazing. Just playing with them pushes me and makes me do better. I know I'm never satisfied. I need to be better to keep up with these girls."

Allen brings that attitude — and the new skills she's learned — back to Glenelg, where she's earned a reputation as a smart player. That reputation is built on years of studying the game but, most of all, by being prepared. She leaves nothing to chance.

"I think everything through. I see where my runners are. I process everything before it happens. Softball is one of the most mental games because you have to process everything," she said about playing defense.

Allen admits she has weaknesses. "I get anxious. I love high pitches. Sometimes I make the pIay before I get the ball. I used to get down on myself (for making mistakes) but now I let it roll off me," she said. "Stuff happens."

Next year, she continued, "I'm going to focus on fielding the ball first before I make the play. And I am not going to swing for the fence but get those base hits."

She's a better hitter because of the Inferno, she added. "I would go up there (to the plate) thinking I'd hit every pitch until I saw it was a ball. But the way they teach hitting definitely helped. They made me wait until the ball is almost past me, rather than getting ahead of it."

Ironically, not one of Allen's home runs was a game-winner. Some were icing on the cake; some gave the Gladiators a temporary lead. But all boosted the team's confidence, especially in midseason when Glenelg (15-2 league, 16-7 overall) hit a low point before a solid finish to claim the county title.

Next year, "we will still be pretty strong. We have to fill (all-county senior outfielder Nykita Vernot's) spot. I feel like we have a strong chance and can make a run" for another county title and advance in the playoffs, said Allen.

Allen remembers two especially good games. One was that contest against Mt. Hebron, when the county title was on the line. "I was working hard to make little things happen. I knew we didn't want to lose that game. I had an error but I didn't let it bother me. It wasn't my best defensive game but offensively I think I helped my team."

The other memory is much more dramatic, and it will likely stick to her for a long time. After all, not everyone can help pull off a triple play. It came against Reservoir, with two on and no outs, and it started when Allen grabbed a line drive.

"I will never forget that. It's the first triple play I've ever been involved in, it's something big in my softball career," she said.

As talented as she is both defensively and at the plate, Allen's speed may be the most dazzling. She credits Glenelg's indoor track coaches for improving her technique. "You can't teach speed but they taught me how to run, they taught me form," she explained.

Allen has verbally committed to play for Kent State University after she graduates in 2013. The northeastern Ohio campus and coaches were so inviting that she wants to be part of the Golden Flashes' softball program. Kent's baseball team just finished its best season, playing in the College World Series for the first time, and Allen wants the softball program to be successful, too.

Allen said she's a history buff, and the tragic events at the school in 1970 during a Vietnam War protest solidified her interest in the school. "I visited the memorial. It is one of the things I made sure I stopped at," said Allen, who plans to major in communications.

Named to the all-county first team:

Pitchers

Kensey O'Neill, Howard, senior. O'Neill "stepped up this year as a true leader," on both offense and defense, said coach Chuck Rice. The ace of the Lions' pitching staff won nine games — including one perfect game — and played second when she wasn't in the circle. Always calm and composed, she had an ERA of 1.069, struck out 86 and gave up just 11 earned runs. She was stingy with free passes, too, allowing just 13 after facing 280 batters. At the plate, she averaged .480, with four doubles. "Her knowledge of the game will be truly missed," Rice said.

O'Neill has been a fixture on the first team for the last three years, and was a second-team selection as a freshman.

Rachel Brown, Reservoir, senior. Brown pitched every inning of every game and helped the Gators win their first title — a Class 3A regional championship — in softball. "Rachel was absolutely solid on the mound this year," and is the first Gator to win 20 games in a season, said coach Julie Frisvold. Brown "could keep cool under pressure and get key strike outs." She struck out 112 and set the tone for the Gators from the first pitch of the game. At the plate, she averaged .392, knocked in 18 runs and had five doubles.

"Rachel time and time again was able to come through late in games with big hits," said Frisvold.

Catcher

Hannah Force, Hammond, senior. Force was a powerhouse at the plate, batting .451 and knocking in 30 runs, and led the county in extra-base hits — 12 doubles, four triples and three home runs. Her biggest hit may have been a game-winning home run in an upset win over Howard late in the season.

"Offensively, she's been one of the most feared hitters in the county for four years," said coach Brad Speierman. With "a potent offense around her," pitchers had to throw to her, he added. "She made many of them pay the price with triples and home runs."

The senior started the season at short for the Golden Bears but moved behind the plate for the second half. She's "one of the most enjoyable players I've ever had the privileged of coaching," said Speierman.

First base

Sage McGrann, Howard, senior. "Sage was the go-to player when the game was on the line," said coach Chuck Rice. From the fourth slot in the lineup, McGrann led the team offensively in average (.514), hits (38), doubles (eight) and triples (two), and extra-base hits (10), and had the second-best on-base percentage (.556). She also knocked in 26 runs. The first baseman was the cornerstone for Howard's outstanding defense that carried the team to the Class 3B regional finals.

McGrann has been a first-team all-county player twice, and was second-team once.

Infield

Alli Bluhm, Mt. Hebron sophomore. Bluhm, a Player of the Year nominee, "had one of the best offensive years of any player I have coached," said Chuck Struhar. The shortstop led the county in average (.600), was second only to Hannah Force in total extra-base hits (16), and tied with two others for most triples (four). Bluhm, with 36 hits and 12 doubles, had an "unreal" slugging percentage of .933, said Struhar. "She was an extra-base hit machine." Defensively, she's a "very sound shortstop with great range. She possesses a quiet leadership," he added.

Amy Bresson, Reservoir, senior. Another Player of the Year candidate, this shortstop was "the anchor of our team," said Julie Frisvold. Bresson did not commit an error and, both offensively and defensively, "came through time and time again under pressure to help us" record the school's best season in its history, Frisvold said. Bresson, who will play at Lynchburg College next year, batted cleanup, hit .418 and led the Gators in doubles (nine).

"She continually made gutsy defensive plays that helped her team get out of jams. She is one of the most versatile players in the county, earning all-county honors as an outfielder, a catcher, and now an infielder," Frisvold added.

Juliana Natoli, Howard, senior. Natoli was "the silent leader in the field," said coach Chuck Rice. "She made plays which I know saved us multiple runs throughout the season." Batting third, Natoli led the Lions in RBIs (29) and hit at a .493 clip. She showed her power with four doubles, a triple and a home run that helped stop Reservoir's win streak at 12 in the teams' first meeting of the season.

This is the fourth year Natoli, also a Player of the Year candidate, has earned first-team honors.

Katie Wilkinson, Howard, junior. Wilkinson led the Lions with an on-base percentage of .562 and home runs (4) to earn first-team honors at third base for the second straight year. The junior had nine extra-base hits and a good eye at the plate, drawing nine walks. She also showed her speed with eight stolen bases. Defensively, she played the hot corner nearly flawlessly, making the big plays time and time again.

But, most importantly, said coach Chuck Rice, "Katie will be back next year and one of the leaders of this new Lions team."

Outfield

Alicia Grant, Howard, senior. With solid defense and strong arm, Grant was the center piece of the Lions' outfield. "She kept us in games with her strong play in the outfield," said coach Chuck Rice, who coached Grant for four years. At the plate, the centerfielder hit .397, with 25 hits and an on-base percentage of .479.

Grant also drew a team-high 10 walks to give Howard more offensive threats and help the Lions advance to the Class 3A regional finals.

Megan Maloney, Reservoir, senior. A first-team pick for the second straight year, Maloney again anchored the Gators' outfield with her ability to deliver the big plays defensively. And like last year, Maloney led the county in hits (45 this year) and runs (36). She also tied for the most triples (4) and added seven doubles and two doubles. The centerfielder stole 15 bases — and was never caught — hit .479 and posted a .525 on-base percentage. Maloney, who will play for Slippery Rock, "always seemed to come through in clutch situations," said coach Julie Frisvold.

Her leadership was essential in getting Reservoir a regional title. "Megan pushed her team throughout the season to reach that goal," said Frisvold.

Nykita Vernot, Glenelg, senior. After being a fixture at second for two years — and making the all-county second team last year — Vernot started the season there again and was part of a triple play that Glenelg pulled against Reservoir.

Mid-season, however, Vernot moved to the outfield.

"She did whatever was necessary for the team to succeed," said coach Ray Gerstner. At the plate, Vernot was a clutch hitter and was savvy on the basepaths with 16 stolen bases to help the Gladiators win the county title. She hit .477, with 31 hits. "Her senior leadership will be missed," said the coach.

Vernot was part of three county softball championships at Glenelg.

Designated player

Loryn McMillin, Howard, senior. After surgery last fall on her shoulder, McMillin stepped into the role of full-time DP for the Lions this spring, said Rice. Her bat had to be in the lineup. With seven doubles and two home runs, McMillin hit .359 from the fifth spot. She was second in doubles (seven) and home runs (two) for the Lions. "I'll miss her calm attitude toward the game," added coach Chuck Rice.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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