Kayli Paugh wasn't afraid to let herself dream big.
The Howard pitcher with a power arm and just as powerful bat had already displayed moments of greatness as a junior on her way to being named a second-team all-county selection and helping the Lions to a top three finish in the county standings in 2013.
Yet, as Paugh mapped out her goals before this season, she knew the potential was there for something even better.
"In the back of my mind I was thinking, 'How cool would it be if I could reach that (Player of the Year) level and help us compete for a county title.' It was Katie Wilkinson last year and, having her as a teammate, I definitely was kind of looking up to her," Paugh said. "I remember thinking why not me this year?
"It's one of those things where I wanted to do everything I could to help the team, and I knew if I stayed confident hitting and confident pitching anything was possible."
Sure enough, putting together a senior season where she led the county with a 1.14 ERA, smacked a county-best seven home runs and upped her batting average almost 200 points to .490, Paugh reached a level all her own this spring.
And it's because of those individual accomplishments, along with helping lead Howard (16-1, 19-2-1) to this year's county championship, that she has been named this spring's Howard County Times/Columbia Flier softball Player of the Year.
"There aren't many girls that come around like Kayli," Howard coach Chuck Rice said. "She's a shutdown pitcher that also has the ability to win a game for you at the plate every time she comes up. We always saw the talent with her coming up since she was on the JV, but this year she added the confidence to go along with it."
A year of travel ball, along with offseason work with hitting coach Scott Wade and pitching coach Jenn Shellhammer, went a long way to putting Paugh in position to hit the ground running this spring.
However, as important as all the preparation was, actually getting into big game situations and delivering in the clutch was just as critical to setting the stage for the breakout campaign.
Right out of the gates, Paugh combined with fellow senior pitcher Courtney Merson to shut out Broadneck. Then, two days later, she pitched a masterful two-hit victory over Mt. Hebron where she struck out 12 and allowed just one run.
"Coming into the season, that was the game we wanted because of the playoffs last year," said Paugh, referencing Howard's loss to the Vikings in the 2013 postseason. "So beating them and pitching the way I did, I think it not only gave me a lot of confidence but gave the whole team a lot of confidence. We figured if we could do it against Hebron then we could do it against anybody."
Howard did indeed keep rolling, stumbling only once against Centennial prior to spring break. After that, the team didn't lose again until a regional semifinal match-up against Sherwood — a team that went on to win its third consecutive state title this spring.
Included on the way to winning the program's first county championship since 2011 were season sweeps of second-place River Hill and third-place Mt. Hebron.
"After the Centennial loss, I think it just made us strive to get better," Paugh said. "We really focused on our defense and I thought as the season went on that was probably the strongest part of our team.
"Courtney and I owe our defense so much … they made us look good."
This year, Paugh got to be a part of that standout defense when she wasn't pitching. No longer blocked by Wilkinson, she got to play some third base and she showcased just how versatile she can be.
"I was really happy that I got to have that opportunity senior year and, I'm not going to lie, I've really been looking forward to it," Paugh said. "It definitely helped me to keep in the game because I was always focused and always more involved in the game those times when I wasn't pitching."
Added Rice: "She worked as hard at third base as she did on the mound. She was the complete package."
During the course of the season there were plenty of highlights, but the team's double-header against Reservoir late in the year is right there at the top of the list. It was in the first game of that twin bill that Paugh proceeded to hit home runs in each of her first three at bats.