In Howard County, little girls want to pitch like Stephanie


May 29, 2007|By MILTON KENT

There's more than one way to measure the effect one player can have on a team. The obvious one is to keep an eye on the bottom line, specifically the wins, the losses and the championships.

In that vein, Hammond pitcher Stephanie Speierman has demonstrated her value to the Golden Bears, practically carrying her team to the Class 2A state softball title with one of the most brilliant seasons around these parts in any sport.

For first-year Hammond coach Richard Pond, Speierman's gift may be in the buzz she creates for the program, the interest and attention she spurs for those who want to see her pitch, and the desire she sparks in younger players to be like her.

Already, Pond said, kids are approaching him in the grocery store checkout line, and parents are asking him what summer program they should get their girls involved in so they can pitch like Speierman.

And all that was before Speierman tossed a perfect game in Saturday's 4-0 championship game win over North East of Cecil County.

"It can just inspire so many girls to get in and be a softball player," Pond said of Speierman's performance. "And not only be a softball player, but the kind of qualities she has, the hard work, [the fact that] she never quits and always gives her best effort."

It would be difficult to imagine Speierman giving any better effort than she did Saturday in College Park at Maryland's softball complex, where she pitched like a college senior rather than a high school sophomore.

Speierman struck out 19 of the 21 batters she faced, tying Calvert's Megan Elliott for most strikeouts in a state tournament game. Speierman fanned the first 11 hitters and the last six, never facing a three-ball count.

Late in the game, the Indians tried to stir things up, but the only contact they could manage was a weak bunt attempt in the fourth and a tapper to second in the fifth. The Indians never had a chance against Speierman, and they knew it.

"I'll admit it. I'm a sore loser," said North East pitcher Kate Brown, who scattered five hits in a tough-luck loss. "But I lost to a really good pitcher. She's a dominating pitcher, and I can accept it. What can you do? It was her game. She was awesome."

Speierman was awesome all year, starting and ending the season with perfect games. In the middle, she shattered the state record for strikeouts, finishing with 427. A 3-0 loss to Centennial on May 4 was the only blot on her record this year.

At the plate, Speierman was just as impressive, batting over .600 for the season and hitting three of Hammond's four home runs this year. Pond said he started the season batting her third or fourth in the order, but when teams began pitching around her, he moved her to leadoff.

Apparently, North East didn't get the memo about not giving Speierman anything to hit. In the second inning, with runners on first and third with one out, Brown sneaked an off-speed pitch over the outside corner for a strike to force the count to 2-1.

On the next pitch, Brown tried the same thing. Bad move. Speierman drove the pitch to right, one-hopping the fence for a triple, as she drove in the only two runs she would need. All that was left was to wait for the trophy presentation.

"I went out there and played it like it was just any other game," Speierman said. "If you can overlook being on this amazing field and being in this amazing part of the season and focus on just playing softball, just like any other day, it's a lot easier to do well. It's taken me a long time, but I think I've gotten to the point where I'm able to control the nerves."

While softball nationally is experiencing a growth spurt of sorts - what with NCAA tournament games being televised - the sport still runs a poor second to lacrosse in popularity and interest among girls, especially in Howard County.

To wit, Speierman, freshman catcher Katie McCarthy and sophomore Brittany Hazzard are the only Hammond players who played travel softball last year, Pond said, adding that many of his players also take part in field hockey. Thirteen of them, however, will return next year.

Saturday's title - the first in county history in 10 tries - may at least start to get Howard County into the conversation with Anne Arundel County, the acknowledged area hotbed of public school softball.

If nothing else, Speierman's blazing right arm and sizzling bat may be enough to start a tradition of championships at Hammond.

"Howard County has some good softball, but a player like Stephanie can inspire so many girls," Pond said. "Stephanie just inspires all of these girls to be better. Her work ethic and all that just pays off.'

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