HESSTON — Hesston College softball freshman Chelsea Smith has been flying high on the field, and plans to take it higher in the classroom, but more about that later.
The Larks have been rewriting the record book for most of the season, and Smith has been a key to that process.
At 20-4 this season with five saves, she leads the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II in saves. She is tied for seventh in wins, just three off the lead. She also is second in strikeouts at 232. She also holds most of the single-season records in those categories.
“That’s crazy,” Smith said. “I came into the season ready to compete, but I never expected anything like this to happen. I got lucky, maybe. I’ve just been going out in every game with confidence and trust in my teammates — having faith in the process.”
Smith came to Hesston from Tacoma, Wash.
“I was looking for a change of scenery,” Smith said. “I met coach (Andrew) Sharp at a tournament in Colorado, and that’s how I got connected. It’s been a perfect fit for me.”
“In the Sparkler tournament, which is in mid-summer in Colorado, Chelsea was a player I coached in an all-star game,” Sharp said. “College coaches were assigned players in an all-star game. It was a very informal game, but we were able to rub shoulders and get to know each other. I offered shortly after that.”
Smith said her favorite pitch is her curveball.
“She is fearless pitcher who craves the ball,” Sharp said. “She wants the ball. … She does not crave the spotlight. Several of our kids could rightly say, ‘I’m the big dog,’ but they really haven’t done that. She leads with her actions and she’s a wonderful teammate. The kids respond to that.”
Smith isn’t the only one who has rewritten the record book this season. Amy Bretado leads the NJCAA II in RBIs at 64 and is second in home runs at 19. She also holds a .467 batting average. Jessie Miranda leads the nation in stolen bases at 46.
“Lexi Avilos is one hit away from being our all-time hits leader,” Sharp said. “Chelsea Smith is rewriting the pitching record book. They’re all just sharing it. They aren’t all that concerned with their individual statistics.”
Hesston, 34-11, is on a 23-game winning streak. The team already set records for most wins in a season and longest winning streak. Hesston received votes in the latest NJCAA Division II poll, a first for the team since entering the Division II ranks.
“Since moving to Division II, this has been the most successful season of Hesston College softball,” Sharp said. “There’s no question about it. It’s a testament to these players. We faced quite a bit of adversity. We’ll have more to come. We don’t have perfect kids. Our kids have learned the value of playing for a common goal that’s bigger than individual interests.”
The eventual success wasn’t apparent early, as the team started off 3-8.
“We have a good corps of players,” Smith said. “A lot of us are a good fit. We’re lucky with that. Coach just put us in the right position to push us forward.”
“We started the season in a very tough Texas tournament,” Sharp said. “We played some very good Texas JUCOs. We were 1-4 then. We started 3-8, but we have been getting better as a group as the season goes along. We’re peaking at the right time.”
The team won a share of the Jayhawk Conference Division II at 15-5, the Larks’ first season in the conference.
“It’s not what we expected,” Smith said. “We weren’t picked to do to well this season. It’s a great honor. Coming into the year, I just wanted to do the best I could. As the season went on, I tried to keep my ERA down low and my strikeouts high.”
The Larks clinched the title with a 4-3 win over 16th-ranked Johnson County Community College in the conference finale in eight innings. It was the first time the Larks ever took two games from the Cavaliers in a doubleheader.
“It was insane,” Smith said. “It was an entire team effort. Going into that game, they were ranked no. 1 in the conference and I just wanted to compete.”
Smith is an aviation major at Hesston.
“My dad has a private pilot’s license and has been around planes his entire life,” Smith said. “It was inspiring. It’s very tough, especially on the weekends. I have a course that’s very heavy coursework. It’s very tough.”
“She did not declare aviation at the time (of signing), but that was always in the back of her mind,” Sharp said. “Over the Christmas break, she made the decision to enroll in the aviation program. Her dad has an Air Force background.”
Hesston earned a first-round bye in the NJCAA Division II, District D playoffs and will face the winner of best-of-three series between Cloud County Community College (11-27) and Kansas City (Kan.) Community College (34-18) at 10 a.m. May 11 at Hummer Sports Park in Topeka. Johnson County, Murray State (Okla.) and North Arkansas also are in the tournament. The tournament winner advances to the NJCAA Division II World Series in Clinton, Miss.