published Friday, April 6th, 2012

Chattanooga area blessed with gifted softball baserunners

East Hamilton softball player Shaliya Geathers rounds third base to take home during a game against Tyner.
East Hamilton softball player Shaliya Geathers rounds third base to take home during a game against Tyner.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

No leading off; no reading a pitcher's pickoff move; no leaving the base until the ball leaves the pitcher's hand.

All these restrictions, yet nothing seems to discourage the gifted softball baserunner from trying to steal.

Soddy-Daisy is hosting the 22nd Lady Trojan Invitational this weekend, and although it's a high school softball competition, enough top-flight sprinters will be there that it might make an entertaining track meet.

Each of the three local teams that began pool play Thursday at Soddy-Daisy High School has a speedster at the top of its lineup. Grace Academy's Lexi Dean is a Lee University signee who stole 31 bases and scored 55 runs last year. The second game included Soddy-Daisy junior Cassidy Hackney, who has pledged to play at Tennessee Tech, and East Hamilton junior Shaliyah Geathers, who has committed to Tennessee.

The rest of the tournament is being played on four fields at the Soddy Lake Kids' Park. Today's pool-play action is set to start at 9 a.m. and runs through games scheduled at 9 p.m. Single-elimination in the Gold and Silver brackets is slated to begin Saturday morning with finals taking place late in the afternoon.

Other area girls to watch this weekend include Marion County's Brooke Baxter, Baylor's Noelle Winkles and Central's Brook Womack, all with more than 50 runs scored last season. Baxter, a junior committed to East Tennessee State, stole 28 bases last spring, and Winkles stole 23 as a freshman.

Hackney and Baxter each has 10 steals so far in 2012, which has Hackney on pace for a personal-best season. She totaled 108 runs the last two years, but the girls in the heart of the Lady Trojans' order during that time are now on college rosters.

"That had a lot to do with it," said Soddy-Daisy coach Clifford Kirk, who was taking fewer running chances with heavy hitters coming up. "We're doing a lot of different things this year."

Another burner on display will be Ballard's Jessica Adell from Louisville, Ky. Like Geathers, she is committed to the Lady Vols.

"The thing is, speed never goes into a slump. Hitters can have an off day," said Karen Weekly, co-head coach at UT with husband Ralph. "But also, you can't steal first. You've got to be able to get there, then be able to make things happen on the basepaths."

More than guts

Speed and daring are essential, but they don't guarantee success in stealing. Geathers said the best tips she's received about stealing bases have come from a summer coach, Blaes Schmissrauter.

"She's always told me, 'You've got to get a good jump and pay attention to the catcher. If you feel you didn't get a good jump, don't go,'" Geathers said. "Even with my speed, if I don't get a good jump, I'm probably not going to make it."

Geathers said watching a pitcher's delivery and trying to time the release point helps in getting the best possible jump. She also uses a variety of ways to arrive at a base -- from a dive to a hook slide to a pop-up slide -- whatever it takes to avoid a tag.

Womack said learning the hook slide has helped increase her stolen-base count. That's once she got through to her coach, LeeAnne Shurette, about her desire to attempt more steals.

"She's always been a really good baserunner," Shurette said. "It's probably my fault I didn't have her run more last year. She's a good hitter. Defensively she's very solid. She has all the tools. Utilizing her speed is something we're trying to do more of this year."

As a result, the junior committed to Southern Illinois currently leads the Chattanooga area in steals with 13.

"When I was a freshman, my teammate Jessica Morgan had something like 35 stolen bases," Womack said. "I want that many. Now I know how to slide. When I was a freshman, I was awful."

Geathers also expects to see an increase from the 18 stolen bases she had in 2011. She has eight already.

One trick she's learned from first-year East Hamilton coach Cara Stiles, a leadoff batter throughout her high school and college careers, is how to execute a delayed steal. That constitutes reading a lob throw to the pitcher and taking off for the next base while the ball is in the air.

"She's fast and she's very, very aggressive, which is what I think it takes to be a good base-stealer," Stiles said. "She and I have had multiple conversations. I don't think she realizes how threatening she is to the other team. I love having her on the bases. It makes the other team uneasy.

It takes a thief

Polk County's Bill Triplett is in his first season as softball coach after spending more than 20 years in high school baseball -- 17 as a head coach. He's learned one thing quickly.

"In baseball you steal off the pitcher; in softball you steal off the catcher," Triplett said. "To me, if you've got a good catcher with a good arm back there, the stolen base is not even part of the game. You've got to be really good to steal a base."

The Wildkittens have a good one in freshman Danielle Harvey, whose 12 stolen bases ranks her second in the Chattanooga area. They also have a catcher in junior Lily Cuzzort who Triplett said has kept opposing running games in check so far this spring.

The Weeklys are mindful of all phases of the running game and measure everything in time increments when checking out recruits.

"A good catcher gets it there, from pop to pop, in under 1.8 seconds," Karen Weekly said. "That's from the time she catches it until the time it hits the shortstop's or second baseman's glove. We want to be able to get there in less than that."

Ninth-ranked Tennessee (28-9) is among the NCAA's most efficient running teams with 62 stolen bases in 67 attempts. Coach Weekly said a high-performance running game also helps an offense by getting defenders out of position for a hit-and-run or making them rush to execute, creating errors. Lady Vols are even coached to look for pitches that while in the air appear to have potential to skip past the catcher.

"Always look up" is the coach's standard advice. "Be ready to take advantage of every opportunity."

about Kelley Smiddie...

Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or ksmiddie@timesfreepress.com.

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