Paloma Valley coach Sondra Diaz knows the caliber of athlete she has in senior shortstop Ashley Stassin.
The rest of the Sunbelt League, however, is just beginning to get a better idea after injuries and medical conditions sidelined the NCAA Division I talent for large portions of the last two seasons.
First, it was back and shoulder ailments knocking her out of the lineup as a sophomore. Last year, Stassin's battle with mono kept her out of action during the Wildcats' league slate and ultimately resulted in surgery to repair a malfunctioning kidney that may have led to poor health last season.
Needless to say, Stassin's absence was missed as Paloma Valley finished third in the Sunbelt League race.
"She's a really good leader on the field and she takes charge," Diaz said. "She's so athletic and has such a wide range and is so tall that nothing gets over her head and nothing gets by her on either side. She's got a great arm and she's always been a strong hitter.
"But this year, she's really turned it on."
Stassin leads the Wildcats with a .921 slugging percentage, three homers and 16 RBIs, and is a big reason why Paloma Valley (14-3, 6-0) enters this week undefeated in Sunbelt League action. She set aside time with The Californian to talk about an early commitment to Middle Tennessee State, why she spends more time in the field than in the circle and how it feels to be fully healthy for her senior year.
Question: We understand you committed to Middle Tennessee State fairly early in your high school career. Tell us how that went down.
Answer: Yeah, I committed my sophomore year. They already had a girl on my travel team that had committed there and they were coming out to see how much she had progressed. Then they saw me and went to my coach and said, ‘Who is that?' We pretty much hit it off right away.
Q: You were what, 14 or 15 years old then? What was it like to have that locked up so early in your high school career?
A: Yeah, I was 14. It was exciting. At the time, I didn't really know what to think of it. Now that I've done it all, it's sinking in that I'm doing something really good, and I'm really excited.
Q: Obviously, a verbal commitment isn't exactly binding these days. How important was it to you to honor that commitment when other schools started courting you?
A: It was pretty important. Especially because (Middle Tennessee State) is a very special school because not a lot of schools have the major I want ---- forensic science. They just happened to get a brand new science major and they actually have it. That was really important in choosing Middle Tennessee State.
Q: Of course, Middle Tennesse wants you as a pitcher first. Why don't we see you in the circle more at Paloma Valley?
A: They need me at shortstop, so that's where I go. I do whatever they need me to do. As long as the team's doing fine, it's all right. It's all about the team.
Q: What's your out-pitch in the circle?
A: My drop ball and my rise ball. I really utilize those to get batters to swing and miss. They work great.
Q: Paloma Valley's sophomore pitcher, Kailee Smith, is doing pretty well for herself. What's your relationship like with her?
A: We have a great relationship. We are really good friends. We talk a lot, but not much outside of softball. When we are together, we have a good time.
Q: We imagine you'd be quite a mentor for such a young pitcher, given the scholarship you've locked up. Do you have that kind of role with Kailee?
A: Not really. I mean, if she needs my help, I'll go and help her. This year is good for her to get this much experience. When travel ball comes around, she'll get seen by a lot of schools.
Q: Tell us about Kailee as a pitcher. What's her strength?
A: Her curve and screwball, and she has a good rise ball.
Q: Face her much in practice?
A: I have a couple times. I do know what she throws, so it's easier for me to hit her because of that. I do pretty well against her.
Q: Your coach, Sondra Diaz, tells us you have yet to play a full season with Paloma Valley because of various health issues over the years. How are you feeling these days?
A: Now, I feel fine. I barely notice (after-effects from last year's sickness) until I look down and see my scar. I'm just glad they were able to get in there and fix it. ... With my travel ball team, we recently just got a health and conditioning coach. We get lessons on how to eat and how to take care of our bodies. I think that's really helped me a lot.
Q: How so?
A: We get specific workouts working on the muscles we need for softball. We work on everything, but we really emphasize the ones we really need, like legs, glutes and arms. I love it. I feel amazing on the field, and I think it's really helped my hitting.
Q: How important is it for your team that you are healthy this season?
A: My hitting is really important in the lineup. We have Holly (Oyenhart) and Nicole (Stressling) who are slappers who get on base all the time and then we have our power hitters like me and (Kailee Smith) and (Karynne Johnston). We have a very strong lineup. It's exciting to see.
Q: You entered this week undefeated in the Sunbelt League. What's that like for your team after finishing third a year ago?
A: I feel like we have a giant target on our backs. I have to remind our team that we have to be strong and practice and get better to be undefeated in league.