Jackie Baird saved her best for last.
Before signing with East Tennessee State University, Baird was a standout hitter and catcher at GPS. And not that she had a poor first three years of her Buccaneers career, which came to an end Sunday, but her senior season was one for the record books.
Baird hit 20 home runs as a senior, which led the Atlantic Sun Conference and was second nationally as of the most recent NCAA statistical report on April 28. Her total blew past the single-season school record of 11 set by Stephanie Gaynord in 2006.
As a result of her power surge -- she topped the .800 mark in slugging percentage and had more than 100 total bases -- Baird's 50 RBIs also set a Bucs' record for season.
Baird had fun, but she also said she meant to before the season even started.
"'See ball, hit ball' has always been my approach," Baird said Friday. "It wasn't too complicated. I just told myself 'This is your last one. Let's make it good.'"
ETSU coach Brad Irwin said Baird's success as a senior was more a product of taking a positive mental stance rather than changing much mechanically. Baird had hit 13 homers before this season, which added to her 2014 total leaves her as the program's career home run leader.
"I think the main thing she tweaked was her approach," Irwin said before the Bucs' final weekend series. "She's looking to have fun. She's been real relaxed at the plate. She's kind of a perfectionist and can overanalyze things. She'd hit a popup or roll one over and ground out, and she'd want to know exactly why did that happen. She had too many thoughts going through her head. Now she's just up there looking to square one up."
Scouting reports circulate at the college level, and pitchers learned quickly they would need to pitch carefully to Baird. She walked more times this season than any ETSU player since 2004.
"You pick and choose your battles," Baird said. "I'll expand my strike zone a little more in certain situations. Coach Irwin always reminds me when I get down 1-2, or 0-2, 'Come on. Do your thing. Don't try to do too much. Just put a good swing on it. They're going to go.'"
By expanding her strike zone Baird meant she considered trying to attack pitches slightly off the black edges of the plate when she batted in RBI situations.
"She's not seen a lot of pitches over the white," Irwin said. "But if she sees one she thinks she can handle, she'll put a charge in it."
Whether Baird had things rolling in her career offensively, like this season, or battling the periodic slump at the plate, she was always able to separate offense from defense. And as a catcher, that meant she was involved with every pitch.
"She's caught every game this year but two," Irwin said. "That's a big workload, but she's way too valuable as a field leader behind the plate -- and obviously you want to keep her bat in the lineup, too -- to not have her in there. She's been really good for our pitchers."
Baird said the last three weeks for her have been "an emotional rollercoaster" as the season wound down. She said realizing the finality of her college career may not be fully apparent until August rolls around and she's not getting prepared for fall practice.
Baird's current plan is to return home, enter the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and pursue a career in nursing. She knows that professional opportunities are out there. Now that her playing days at ETSU are done, she might start looking at those options. She's also not ruling out seeking coaching opportunites.
"I know I'm not done yet," Baird said. "I don't think I'll ever be away from the game."
ETSU (20-32) did not qualify for the conference tournament in the rugged A-Sun, which takes the top six finishers among its 10 members. So if Baird never swings another bat in a competitive softball game, she at least knows her senior season with the Bucs is one that won't soon be forgotten.
"It's been cool," Baird said. "Definitely the way to go out."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.
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 email@example.com.