The best baseball and softball players in the world are often referred to as five-tool players. Those special individuals possess the following abilities: speed, power, hitting for average, fielding and arm strength.
There are certain teams that are outstanding in all five of these categories as well, and many times those squads find themselves in contention for championships.
The Crystal River softball team happens to be one of those special groups this season and on Thursday, the Pirates will face Rockledge at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach in the second Class 6A semifinal at the FHSAA State Championships. The winner of that contest will play for the 6A crown on Friday.
Here’s a look at five players for the Pirates who excel in at least one of those five categories and how they reached that level of play.
Catcher isn’t the position you normally think of when it comes to speed, but Pirate junior Caliann Rogers is a special case. She not only possesses speed on the base paths, she is also quick behind the plate from moving over to block balls in the dirt to her lightning-fast throws to bases.
Rogers only has three stolen bases this year on a team that averaged just a little over one steal a game, but she had a huge one in the 10th inning of the regional semifinal against Belleview to get into scoring position and eventually scored the winning run.
“Speed comes in many different forms. She has the ability to turn singles into doubles, doubles into triples with her legs,” Crystal River head coach Deon Copeland said. “We really don’t have a lot of stolen bases this year, but it’s about timing and being able to do it. And two games ago, it was very big for us to put her in that scoring position.”
Something Rogers does do very well is all but eliminate the other team’s speed.
“Behind the plate, there’s not very many balls that get by her. And the speed of her being able to get the ball out and the ball down to second, it’s a game-changer,” Copeland said.
Rogers has allowed just one steal the past two seasons behind the plate.
“I do drills where I work on how fast my hands can separate. And when I’m warming up, just regular throwing, I’ll see how fast I can transfer the ball,” Rogers said. “And after I throw it down to first — because they’re taking too big of a lead — you’ll see their lead shorten up.”
Sophomore outfielder Tiyahnna Hopkins is a newcomer to the varsity this season, but her impact has been felt, especially in the postseason.
In the regional opener against Lake Weir, Hopkins crushed a two-run triple to the wall that broke a close game wide open, delivered a booming double in extra innings against Belleview and drove in the winning run in Friday’s regional final victory over Robinson.
“She’s so strong. Her hands are so fast, and sometimes too fast. We always just constantly preach to wait on it and let it get deeper, because she hits with a lot of power and has the potential to hit the ball out of the park with any swing,” Copeland said. “Late here in the season she’s really come on, seeing the ball better and making contact and has come through for us in clutch situations, putting the ball in the gap and putting the ball in play.”
Hopkins, who has eight extra-base hits this season, said she doesn’t try to hit for power and a powerful swing is the result.
“Usually when I go up to bat, I think in my head just find a way to get on base, make good contact,” she said. “I mainly focus on swinging to make good contact, not always to hit for power.
“When you try to think about, ‘I need to hit, I need to hit,’ you’re not really focused. If you just go up there like, ‘OK, whatever,’ that’s when I feel like I hit the ball the best. It’s not like I try to hit the ball hard, it just happens that way.”
Hitting for average
From having seven total hits in two partial varsity seasons to being the leading hitter on a team headed to the Final Four.
That’s the story of Pirate senior Aleeah Ashmeal, who through hard work, has hit a team-best .398 with a team-high 33 hits and six doubles this season.
“From last season to this season, I‘ve had lessons almost every month. I’ve been working really hard on and off the field, so this year when I had the chance, I really wanted to show him I could prove myself and I can do it,” Ashmeal said. “At the beginning of the season I was wanting to prove myself, because I knew at any time someone could take it away from me. But now I think I’m confident enough that he can’t take me out, because I’m a powerful hitter.”
Copeland said Ashmeal is a dangerous hitter who can deliver a big base knock, but teams also need to be afraid of her power.
“Aleeah is definitely a hard worker in practice and she takes a lot of work on the side as well, individual lessons. That’s definitely shown,” he said. “She brings a lot of power with her swing. She’s a threat to put it out of the park anytime she swings the bat, but along with that this year, she’s led us in batting average. So you have someone capable of hitting that hard with that high of a batting average, is definitely a positive for us.”
The Pirates have strong fielders at every position, but senior shortstop Alyssa Hamilton has been consistent all four years, whether it was splitting time in the field and behind the plate as a freshman and sophomore, to anchoring the infield the past two years. Her fielding percentage her four varsity seasons has been .974, .943, .950 and .949. She has made just 14 errors those four seasons.
“As far as her defensive play, she’s very consistent, knows where to go with the ball, she’s got a strong arm. She can field the ball deep in the hole and still make that play to get the girl out at first,” Copeland said. “As far as hands, she’s got some of the quickest set of hands on our team. Fielding the ball and getting rid of it, which is very instrumental in being able to turn double plays and get those quick outs.
“Alyssa has been grounded at shortstop for us for a couple years now. She’s dependable, a leader.”
Hamilton takes pride in her consistency, which is the result of a lot of repetition.
“It’s been pretty constant. I take ground balls every day at practice. Caliann and I, or Cara (Hardy) and I, do short hops before practice and even sometimes before games, to make sure I have soft hands and am able to field the ball, set my feet and make a good throw,” she said. “Just putting in a lot of work over the years has really helped me be consistent.”
Another job Hamilton handles is going to the circle to talk to ace Jaden Vickers when needed.
“Jaden’s my girl. We’ve played with each other since we were 8 and 9 years old. When she started pitching I was a catcher and would catch for her. We were what we called a Dynamic Duo. We were a package deal,” Hamilton said. “So over the years we developed that pitcher-catcher connection and that best friend type of connection. So anytime I feel like she’s getting kind of rattled or moving too fast, I just like to go slow her down, remind her of what her count is, tell her I have her back and just kind of pick her up.”
It was only fitting that Hamilton made the play to catch a pop-up to end the regional final and send the Pirates to the Final Four for the first time since 1997.
“I definitely didn’t think I was going to get to it. It looked way further than it was and I didn’t even call it until the last second,” she said. “It was really cool to make that final out to experience something that we’ve never got to experience before.”
From ‘Wild Thing’ to University of Rutgers signee. That’s the story in a nutshell for Pirate ace pitcher Vickers.
“I was trying out for a Little League team at Bicentennial and they called out, ‘Who wants to be a pitcher?’ I didn’t know what pitching necessarily was at the time and I saw all the girls run over to the spot, so I went over there,” Vickers recalled. “But my mom did not want me to be a pitcher, and I said ‘Just let me try.’ And then I liked it, but I kind of sucked at it and everyone called me ‘Wild Thing,’ because I couldn’t pitch a strike. It was all over the place.
“And then at one tournament my cousin saw his old coach and asked ‘Would you work with my little cousin?’ And that’s how I started to become more controlled and actually begin to become a pitcher.”
And what a pitcher she has been. Vickers helped the Pirates to the regional final last season with a 17-4 mark and 232 strikeouts in 130 innings. That was after striking out nearly 200 batters as a sophomore and more than 100 as a freshman. This season, she has helped the Pirates take that next step and will be pitching in Vero Beach before headed up the coast to New Jersey.
“Anytime she’s in the circle, she’s going to give us a chance to win. And it’s our job offensively to be able to put runs on the board behind her,” Copeland said. “Even the last game, coming into the last inning up 2-0, I think she threw harder that inning than she did starting the game. Having that support really lets her fell comfortable.
“She’s really stepped up as a leader. Her confidence inside the circle and determination there toward the end. Just that will to win and that will to compete, it’s in her every day.”
But pitching is more than about power and speed and Vickers has fine-tuned her full arsenal this season.
“Definitely my spin on the ball,” Vickers said of her biggest improvement this year. “I don’t aim the ball. I just let the ball do what it wants to do.
“Looking back on last year on how I pitched, I tried to focus more on speed rather than spin. Anyone can catch up to speed. But spin, that’s the movement of the ball and what messes people up. That’s what I focused more on this year. Speed doesn’t really mean anything. I look at some college pitchers and think I pitch faster than them, but they probably have better spin and rotation than I do.”
Vickers will have plenty of time in the future to put her skills to the test in college, but for now, she and the rest of the Pirates have their sights set on battling for a state title.