Two years ago, Jasmine Smithson-Willett showed up for Lakeside's softball tryouts and put on a clinic that floored coach Todd Naylor. She zoomed throws across the diamond, slapped singles through right-side of the infield as a left-handed hitter and blasted shots over the wall as a righty.
Then she stepped on the mound. The rest is history in the making.
"I've been doing this for 19 years," Naylor said, " and I've never seen one person single-handedly change the face of the program the way she has."
The Lancers had back-to-back three win seasons before Smithson-Willet's arrival. In two-plus years since, they've piled up 51 victories and their first Sunbelt League title, with Smithson-Willett averaging 197 strikeouts the last two seasons and verbally committing to Louisville as a sophomore.
This year, the junior hurler is just as dominant at the plate (.526 avg., 30 RBIs, .842 slugging) as she is on the mound (14-5, 1.07 ERA, 122 Ks) and she sat down with The Californian to talk about her early success, the origin of her unique last name, softball at 43 feet and shaking off Nebraska-committed sophomore Austen Urness.
Question: You get a lot of attention because of the numbers you produce on the mound and at the plate. Has that ever been a problem with your teammates?
Answer: Not this year. But my freshman year, my best friend was the coach. I sat on the opposite side of the dugout and didn't talk to anybody. I was the freshman and nobody likes that. This year, there's none of that between any of us and that's kind of what changed this year. ... It was hard. I did not like my freshman year. We were nine girls out there not getting along.
Q: You've got quite a name. What's the story there?
A: (Sighs) In softball, when my mom first signed me up for ASA, I was under Smithson. That's what it says on my birth certificate, I guess. When I registered for school, it was Willett, which is my dad's last name. On travel ball, everyone knows me as Jasmine Smithson. If somebody from school saw me, it was, "Hey, do you know Jasmine Willett?" They'd be like, "Who's that?" So my mom said let's just hyphenate it.
Q: So you're mom has kind of branded your softball career?
A: (laughing) Yeah, pretty much.
Q: Softball seems like your livelihood anyway. Do you treat it like that?
A: Well I've been in softball since I was 8, so I've missed slumber parties and the whole girl childhood. I never really had that, so it's hard not to take it seriously when you've given up so much.
Q: What would high school be like without softball?
A: I honestly don't know. I don't know how kids go home and just hang out. I'd probably be a bookworm.
Q: You guys aren't ranked. Is that a slap in the face?
A: I know, that's kind of heartbreaking. It is (a slap in the face) in a way, but I kind of like it. People are like, "It's just Lakeside. They are not even ranked." Then we beat teams in the fifth inning, the good teams like Paloma, they are going to know we should have been ranked.
Q: Your team goes how you go. What's that kind of pressure like? How do you deal with it?
A: My freshman year, I used to have panic attacks. I would sit here and I'd be shaking. I wouldn't want to go out. ... I would honestly hope for three up and three down so I could run to the dugout and just breathe.
Q: Has it always been like that for you when you play? Even in travel ball?
A: No, that's what I couldn't understand. When I'd go and play against the top teams in the nation, I would just be, "OK, that's cool. We got this." When I came out here, I just felt that all the weight was on my shoulders. I had to do this for my teammates. I had to do this for my school. I felt like everything was on me.
Q: You verbally committed to Louisville as a sophomore. Why so early?
A: I visited UCLA, and it wasn't what I expected. The field was not my field of dreams. The facilities were nice, but not what I expected them to be. When I went to Louisville, it was my White Christmas. We woke up in the morning to powder. It was like being in Alaska again. Then we went to their field and their facilities and everything was so cool. I just fell in love.
Q: There's a lot of talk on the rubber's move from 40 to 43 feet. What's your take on it?
A: I like it more. You can get your ball to move a lot more. At 40 feet you can just throw it by a hitter. That's what a ton of the seniors did last year. It'd be nice because I'd have 400 strikeouts again ... but my ball can move now. Not just a little bit.
Q: And at the plate?
A: It's a benefit for you as a hitter if you're going to be selective. I know I've had at-bats where I'm swinging at balls in the dirt or over my head, but as long as you're selective and can tune into the pitchers, 43 feet is a hitter's game. ... You have to put everything into it for some of these pitchers to get it over the plate and for some of these girls they can't make it over the plate. On top of that, you have to make a pitch and hit your spot. It's so much more work than 40 feet.
Q: You're having a great year at the plate. What do you enjoy more: A homer or striking out the side?
A: Probably a home run. I live hitting. I like hitting more than pitching, but pitching is my thing.
Q: If Louisville said you were strictly a pitcher, would you have picked a different college?
A: Yes, I would. That's my one thing. I have to be able to hit. I know if some girl hits a home run off me ---- especially a pitcher ---- I'm going to return the favor.
Q: Your catcher, Austen Urness, is making quite a name for herself as well. How do you like working with her?
A: As a player, you appreciate a good player coming in who's younger than you. You know they are going to be there throughout your career. ... When Austen came in, I let her know that it was going to be me and her and we were going to run the table.
Q: When's the last time you shook her off?
A: I shook her off last game when she wanted to throw a changeup to Perris. That's the only ball they can hit and you want to throw a changeup? Yeah, I shook her off ... and she threw down a curve. Strike three. I said, "Nice try Austen." She said, "I just thought I'd let them get a hit some time."
Q: Your coach tells me you need to win the next 11 in a row to win a championship. Does he share that with the team?
A: Oh yeah. Some of the girls laugh it off, especially me and Austen. Naylor wants a championship so bad, just to show everybody that we can do it.
OUTTAKES WITH ... JASMINE SMITHSON-WILLETT
Travel team: SoCal Athletics
Born: Dec. 8, 1993, in Anchorage, Alaska
Favorite sport to watch on TV: Softball
Favorite team: Angels
Favorite movie: "The Guardian"
Favorite TV show: "Desperate Housewives"
Favorite restaurant: BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse
Last concert: "Spice Girls ... I was about 11."
What you're listening to now: Country music
Myspace, Facebook or Twitter: Facebook
Favorite class: American literature
Least favorite class: Math
Last book read: "Of Mice and Men"
Future major: "Maybe English -- because of my American literature class. I enjoy it that much. I even took a journalism class next year so I can be with this teacher. He really inspires me."
View from the sideline: "She's just an amazing kid. She's fun to coach, she still listens and she's not a prima donna. There has never been a player that I've seen change a program the way she has."
-- Lakeside coach Todd Naylor