Friday, May 27, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Hard work aids transition for Panthers’ DI infielder

Leader sportswriter

Cabot High School graduate Heather Hill did so this month with a 4.1 grade point average, but she isn’t just a standout student. Her play on the softball field in her four years as a Lady Panther shortstop was just as impressive.

Hill, a University of Southern Mississippi signee, had the type of high school senior season one would expect of a Division I signee. She led the Lady Panthers in every major statistical category at the plate and continued to be the same vacuum at shortstop that she’d been the previous three years.

One of the things that make her story unique is she hasn’t been playing softball for as long as most softball players her age. She was a lifelong baseball player up until eighth grade.

It was at that point she decided to give softball a try, but said the transition wasn’t an easy one to make.

“It was challenging,” said Hill, “especially getting used to hitting and the different trajectory of the ball. It took a while. Really, I think it depends on what you’re used to as far as which sport is harder, but the transition was definitely a difficult thing.”

When Hill made the switch to softball, though, she went all in, like she did with baseball. She started playing travel softball her first year doing it, and that gave her a head start on advancing her game and was also a good way for her to get noticed by colleges early.

Hill stood out as a freshman shortstop for the Lady Panthers, and received her first scholarship offer early into her sophomore season. During the summer between her sophomore and junior year, she verbally committed to Mississippi State, but during the signing period her senior year she withdrew that commitment from the SEC school because of what she said involved a lot of weird circumstances that took place leading up to the signing period.

It wasn’t very long after that she decided to sign with the Conference USA school in Hattiesburg, Miss.

“I really loved the campus,” Hill said of Southern Miss. “I got there and it felt like home. Everybody was really nice and I absolutely loved the coaches. I got to meet a lot of the girls and it just seemed like a place where I’d really fit.”

As far as scholarships, unlike football and basketball, baseball and softball teams are much more limited with the number of athletic scholarships schools can give out. So having a 4.1 GPA has helped Hill pay for other college expenses that may not have been covered otherwise.

“She puts as much time into softball as she does in the classroom,” said Cabot softball coach Chris Cope of Hill. “I don’t know when she sleeps.”

Like most incoming college freshmen, Hill said she isn’t sure what field she wants to pursue in college, but has an idea of what she’d like to do once she graduates.

“My major right now is undeclared,” Hill said, “but I’ve really thought about doing something later along the lines of sports medicine or sport coaching – something in that area. I’m not really sure yet.”

It isn’t a surprise that Hill’s first thought about life after sports involves staying in it one way or another. When first approached for this story, Hill was at a hitting lesson, and that same day, Cope said he was sure he’d hear from her soon about coming to the softball field and getting some extra practice in.

Her work ethic is where any collegiate coach would prefer it to be, but it’s not all work to her. She doesn’t put that much time and effort into her game because it’s a chore. She does it for the genuine love of the game, and the enjoyment she gets from playing it.

“I try to do something pretty much every day,” Hill said. “It’s kind of been like that always, even when I was younger, because I just love doing it – everything really.”

“She’s a very coachable kid,” Cope said. “She’s one of those kids you have to tell to go home. If you don’t, she’s going to stay there all night and work at it. She’s put in the time and effort to make it where she is right now.”

During her time at CHS, Hill played a pivotal role in the program’s turnaround. When she was a freshman, the Lady Panthers were 14-14, and Hill led the team that year in home runs, RBIs and runs scored, and tied for the most hits with 34.

The next year, her sophomore season, the Lady Panthers finished with a 15-12 overall record and Hill had another good season. But her junior year, the Lady Panthers exploded onto the scene, finishing the season with a 27-5 record and runner-up finish in the Class 7A state tournament.

That 2015 season, Hill was second on the team in hits (39), RBIs (37) and batting average (.429), and first in runs scored with 36. This past season, Hill finished with 40 base hits, eight home runs, 41 RBIs, 39 runs scored and a batting average of .588.

The team finished with a 22-4 record. Its season ended in the quarterfinals of the state tournament, which was sooner than the Lady Panthers would’ve liked, but for the third year in a row the team won a conference championship and Hill and the rest of this year’s group of graduated seniors, who were freshmen during Cope’s first year as head coach at CHS, have played a significant role in boosting the program into what it is today.

“She came in with a strong freshmen class that year,” Cope said of Hill. “We started with eight and then we ended up with six seniors this year. She’s been a big part of the group and she’s been a big part of the success for our program. From her freshman year to now, she’s almost a career .500 hitter. She’s .588 this year and at one point she was at .650. She’s a tough out.

“They got something started. Their freshmen year we were .500. Our second year we were 15-12, and then 27-5 and 22-4. So they’ve built something and hopefully we can continue to do that and they were a big part of that.”

Hill leaves Cabot with quite the resume. She earned All-Conference honors every year she played at Cabot, and has been an All-State selection the past two years. In addition, she was selected on Tuesday to play for the East All-Star team later this summer in what will officially be her final high school softball game.

All in all, Hill had a good run at Cabot, and said she’ll look back on her time as a Lady Panther shortstop very positively.

“It was a great experience,” Hill said, “because we got to see how much the work that we put in paid off, because we have improved so much over the last two years. It was just good to see it pay off, and realize that we could really compete with all the teams in Arkansas that for all this time have been really good.

“Even though it didn’t end the way we wanted to, it was a really great experience.”