When Haley Downin steps into the circle this spring, it’d be hard to believe that four years ago, she wasn’t necessarily going to be a pitcher.
As an incoming freshman trying out for the Chesapeake-AA varsity team, she was an infielder. But what the Cougars really needed, coach Don Ellenberger recalled, was someone to lead them from the mound.
He presented the ninth-grader and her father, Leroy, the option. Downin had pitched some before, but in the offseason, she remade herself, working tirelessly at building an arsenal that would, by spring, earn her a starting role.
“The dedication she brings by just being willing to do that, knowing that her number one position is either second base or shortstop, spoke volumes,” Ellenberger said. “She's so about the team. Right now, she's going to break some pitching records in all likelihood this year that no one would've thought of back then.”
Downin is just 18 appearances away from breaking Chesapeake’s all-time games pitched record, which former USA Women's National Team member Lauren Gibson set at 77. With 48 wins under her belt, she’s also capable of setting a new program mark in that column, surpassing Gibson, again, who had 62.
When Downin compiled a 17-4 record in 2017, it was an Anne Arundel County-best. But even when she has reached the peak of the county, Downin’s never finished. Last spring, she struck out 148 with a 19-2 record and 1.88 ERA, piloting Chesapeake to the county championship and the 3A East semifinal.
“That's been Haley's philosophy forever,” Ellenberger said. “Every game, she wants the ball in that circle, and she never wants to come out. And when she's batting, all she wants is 'throw me the ball because I'm going to hit it somewhere.’ ”
Coming in as a senior this year, Downin’s call to leadership will only be heightened. It’s her mission to guide her less-experienced teammates, especially the four freshmen, the best she can. She did the same last year with three ninth-graders in the ranks, and the Cougars went undefeated in the regular season.
“[Because] we have some younger people this year, I want to keep building and growing,” she said. “As a team, the more we are closer together and work well as a team, the even better we'll be.”
Over four years, Downin amassed over 1,000 points for Chesapeake basketball, but once she committed to play basketball and softball Division II Wilmington University in Delaware, she was free to play soccer for two seasons, too. Though she hasn’t had to do much to improve her stance or swing this year, playing three sports has rewarded her with increased strength and endurance. Ellenberger expects her singles to become blasts, her blasts to clear the fence.
It’s aided her abilities in the circle as well.
“The leg muscles have gotten stronger,” Ellenberger said. “Her fastball is the best she's ever had, and now her spin pitches are also now breaking sharper, so I think she's going to be much better than what we even saw last year.”
In her coach’s opinion, Downin brings a lethal, potentially unhittable drop curve to the plate. But Downin doesn’t favor any of her weapons.
“All of my pitches have improved,” she said, “because I work on every single one. It goes day by day, what works and what doesn’t. Not everything’s going to be on every single day.”
Downin hails from a family of male athletes; naturally, she began her career on the diamond playing baseball, not softball.
By the time she was 7-years-old, her father Leroy switched her to softball. He became her coach, mentor; typically, when Downin frequents the batting cages after her midday classes, her father is by her side.
“I have a strong relationship with him. When we go away for travel stuff, my mom can’t always go. I spend a lot of time with him. I look up to him. He’s taught me a lot, softball-wise.”
All the while, he taught her something that elevates her to the upper echelon of Anne Arundel softball.
“From the very beginning, he taught me how competitive to be,” Downin said. “That that’s really important when you want to continue playing on a college team.”
To coincide with her prowess on the hill, Downin was as fruitful in the batter’s box. Her .663 batting average was top-tier in Anne Arundel County and a school single-season record, as were her 51 runs, 61 hits and 14 doubles. Her 61 hits would have been a state record, too, if not for Severna Park’s Campbell Kline, who finished with eight more.
“When you talk about one of them, you really need to talk about both of them in the same breath,” Ellenberger said. “They're that same type of player.”
Downin and Kline are the friendliest of rivals; they’ve played side-by-side on the Wagner’s Gold Fastpitch Softball club team.
“No matter who wins, we're both just really happy both are succeeding,” Downin said. “We're leaders, I'd say. Normally the seniors in the county are the leaders, especially when you're a little bit recognized, they tend to look up to you a little bit.”
Chesapeake got the better of the Falcons last season in late April, handing Severna Park its first county loss. Downin hit the lead-off single that ultimately had her speeding home for the first run of the game.
Then in May, the Falcons returned the favor, marring Chesapeake’s perfect run with its first county loss. Kline, of course, knocked in two runs with the bases loaded.
Downin and Kline remind Ellenberger, who’s coached Chesapeake for 18 years, of Gibson and her friendly rivalry with Broadneck pitcher Kourtney Salvarola.
“Those two were heads above everyone else. Always loved playing them, watching them play,” Ellenberger said. “It's fun having that much talent, except when you have to play them against one another.”
There’s not much more Downin can give to the team that she hasn't already done in droves, except perhaps something no current Chesapeake player was alive to see the last time it happened.
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“Hopefully, a state championship. That would be great,” she said. “But, honestly, as long as I have fun doing what I love, that's all I really care about.”