Long before she ever toes the pitching rubber or even takes the field, Sydney Smith’s effect on a game is being felt.
With an array of pitches varying in speed from fast to wow, a stride that seems to cover half the 43-foot distance to home plate and a scholarship offer from Louisiana State University awaiting her signature, the 6-foot junior righthander from Maple Grove has attained a nearly iconic status among local high school softball players.
Her reputation is as much a part of her game as her riseball.
“Everyone knows who she is,” Park Center senior catcher M.J. Jellison said. “Everyone gets a little nervous when they have to hit against her.”
Smith’s statistics are more than enough to justify her selection at the 2014 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.
She’s 19-1 this season, with an ERA of 0.59 and 232 strikeouts in 130 innings pitched. She has six shutouts, five no-hitters and one perfect game.
In her only loss, she gave up a two-run homer in the first inning last Thursday against Spring Lake Park in the first game of the Class 3A, Section 5 finals. Then she retired the next 19 batters she faced, 13 of them by strikeout.
“You could see her bear down after that [home run],” said Maple Grove coach Jim Koltes, whose team won the next game 13-1 to advance to the state tournament for the third year in a row. “She’s just a tough, tough kid. Nothing rattles her.”
Usually, it’s Smith who does the rattling. Opposing batters are routinely overmatched, waving at pitches they barely see. A hard-hit foul ball often draws cheers.
“It is really intimidating to hit against her,” said Crimson catcher Jordan Mauch, who is in her fourth season working with Smith. “She’s got the arm and the body of a pitcher. When she throws it in there like she has been, she just dominates.”
She doesn’t resort to theatrics when she’s in the circle. She won’t stare down batters. There’s no need. Her talent speaks for itself.
“A lot of people think I’m intimidating in the circle,” Smith said. “I want people to be intimidated by me. Then when they get into the [batter’s] box, I have the upper hand.”
Smith paused and looked around at her teammates, celebrating their section championship, and smiled. “But if you ask them, I’m not intimidating at all.”
Smith’s path to this point had stretched well beyond Minnesota’s borders. A year-round player, she played summer softball for Beverly Bandits of suburban Chicago. That team won the PGF (Premier Girls’ Fastpitch) 16-under national championship.
This summer Smith will take her talents to Kansas to play with the nationally ranked Wichita Mustangs club team, which has an indoor 75,000-square-foot training facility. The perfect place to feed her passion.
“I don’t ever get tired of playing softball,” Smith said. “When I’m getting tired and worn out, that’s when I love it the most. That’s when I have to focus, pitch by pitch.”
With all she’s accomplished and a not-so-distant future of playing softball on increasingly larger stages, Smith said her biggest goal is to be known as a complete player. She’s equally proud of her ability to hit the ball as she is of how she throws it. She has some gaudy offensive numbers — a .578 batting average with three homers and 24 RBI.
“I love being on the rubber, but I share equal love at the plate,” she said. “I want to be known as an all-around player.”
But it’s her presence on the mound that makes her special.
Walking slowly out of the Rice Creek softball complex, Spring Lake Park junior first baseman Kati Thunborg was asked to name the best pitcher she’s faced.
Thunborg stopped, thought briefly, then jerked her thumb back toward the field where her team had just been defeated by the Crimson.
“Her,” said Thunborg, referring to Smith. “She’s got it all. I haven’t seen anybody better.”