High School's Elite Top Softball Program
By Dave Utnik
But she isn't in any particular hurry to leave Goodyear, Arizona. Not just yet.
The Estrella Foothills senior has a lot to look forward to -- at Philadelphia University and on the softball diamond. The future, like her fastball and powerful bat, is loaded with promise.
Of that, there is no doubt. Smith is the Wolves undisputed MVP and a significant reason they are considered by many as the top high school softball team in the nation.
On the final day of the regular season, with rival Desert Edge threatening to spoil what has been a perfect spring, Smith showed once again why she is so highly regarded by her teammates and peers.
She gave her team and early lead by delivering a run-scoring single off Desert Edge ace Cyra Wentz in the first inning and followed that with a two-out home run in the third to cap a 2-1 victory.
Smith also struck out six in a two-hit pitching performance that secured the Wolves' 31st consecutive victory.
"Kasia was unanimously voted as the player of the year," coach Rick Brungardt said.
Smith is the first Estrella Foothills softball player to receive a scholarship to a major four-year college program and the Wolves have flourished during her career, reaching the state quarterfinals in 2009, the state finals in 2010 and capturing the Class 3A state championship last year.
"After losing the state championship in 2010 the team was hungrier than ever," Brungardt said.
And the Wolves' appetite for victory has not diminished despite a realignment that has them competing in the newly formed Division III.
"Our re-aligned conference allows us to play larger schools from higher divisions and we have enjoyed much success in doing so," Brungardt said. "The prospect of playing bigger schools helps us elevate our game to a higher level and provides us with quality competition."
That is a philosophy embraced by each of the nation's elite teams, including No. 2 Palm Beach Gardens, No. 3 Alvin (TX), and No. 4. Norco (CA).
The Wolves are the bulls-eye that every aspiring champion is aiming to hit.
Brungardt understands that as well as anyone. Estrella Foothills spent four seasons trying to win a state title. And now that the Wolves have accomplished that feat, everyone else is out to replace them.
"Having an undefeated season has brought with it good and bad," he said. "We have received a lot of support from a growing fan base, the community, our student body as well as very favorable media coverage. But with it comes the price of feeling like you are sitting on a powder keg waiting to blow up.
"We have an ever growing target on our backs and recognize that there are a lot of teams out there that would like to take us down. We realize that we must work hard in practice to be fully prepared for anything that is thrown at us."
The Wolves had the talent and the experience to remain a championship contender with Smith in the pitcher's circle and a trio of all-state players -- senior catcher Tatum Reedy, senior first baseman Lenora Brafford and sophomore shortstop Ashley Godfrey -- anchoring the lineup.
Even after Smith departs the future remains promising with freshmen Taylor Godfrey and Dustie Durham already establishing themselves as potential stars.
PALM BEACH GARDENS
The Gators have won four Florida Class 8A state championships in seven seasons and they have one good reason to believe that No. 5 is on the horizon: Shelby Turnier.
Armed with a 65-mph fastball and a scholarship to the University of Central Florida, Turnier is the ace of a program that has spent significant time ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation and the front-runners in Florida's Class 8A.
As Palm Beach Garden's coach Randy Jackson explains: "It all starts in the circle."
And there are few better in the country than Turnier, who has more than 150 strikeouts and a pair of no-hitters to her credit this spring.
The Gators depend heavily on Turnier's powerful right arm, but they can hit, too. And that gives them a decided advantage every time they take the field.
Tiffany Lower hit a grand slam against Gulliver Prep in the Kissimmee Klassic championship game, Sara Diskant belted a game-winning solo home run in the regular-season finale over Suncoast and center fielder Ta' Coia Williams batted over. 500 with eight home runs during the regular season.
Hailey Harris rarely takes an inning off. If the Alvin Lady Yellow Jackets are on the field then there's a pretty good chance that the star senior is wrapped up in shin guards and a chest protector.
"Hailey has caught just about every game for us this year," Alvin coach Carla Newsom said. "She leads our team from behind the plate."
Harris, who is headed to Houston Baptist in the fall, has a lot of responsibility and she takes it very seriously. She earned the starting catcher's position as a sophomore and won the team's defensive MVP award in her first varsity season. She's hit over .300 for her career and hardly anyone dares to run on her arm.
Then there's the great work she's done handling a talented pitching staff that features Karri Smith and Lara Bean.
For Harris that's all part of being a team leader.
She is part of a softball tradition that has produced 16 playoff appearances in 17 seasons and a national ranking in 2012.
The Yellow Jackets ended the regular season with 30 wins despite a difficult schedule that included powerhouse foes Pearland, Brazoswood, and the Woodlands.
"Playing a tough schedule has helped us get better throughout the year," coach Newsom said. "It has been an honor to coach this group of kids. They have been on a mission all year. We have had high expectations and have put in lots of hard work to try to reach them."
Bianca Barrera helped Alvin achieve many of its goals by leading the team in hitting. Kinsey Nichols emerged as a terror on the bases and Loren Donaldson led the team in clutch hits -- seemingly always coming through with runners on base.
The Cougars begin each season with exactly one goal in mind -- winning a California state championship.
Everything else is pretty much secondary.
So while the 14-0 start and the national ranking that came with it are something to be proud of, it's the postseason that truly matters.
"I think when players come into the program they hear about our past success and their effort rises to the level of expectation," Norco coach Rick Robinson said. "Every year our only goal is to win it all and we tell them that is the effort we expect."
Pitcher Emily Lockman is among the players who thrives on heightened expectations. She has signed with Nebraska and is responsible for setting both the competitive and emotional tones in the circle.
Kylie Reed, who batted over .590 for much of the season, is another star who tends to showcase her talent when the pressure is on
Since opening the year by winning the prestigious Arizona Tournament of Champions, Norco has been ranked among the nation's top teams and is unquestionably the best California has to offer.
"We really preach the idea of team and family being the most important part of our program," Robinson said. "The players have worked hard to put the goals of the team before individual goals. They have played as a team and the results have showed it."