ITALY — From in-the-park home runs by Alex Jones and Brycelen Richards in the Austin Tournament to Decorea Green's leaping catch against Frost High School to Brooke DeBorde's game-winning hit against Hubbard, Head Coach Tina Richards the Lady Gladiators' 2017 softball season was a continuation of a tradition of winning.
The 10 girls that made the 19-2A Softball All-District First and Second Teams on Monday, too, may be further proof of what Italy High School accomplished in 2017.
"The pure hard work the young ladies put in for the season is represented in the accolades they received. It's not easy to get on these teams, especially because they're voted on by other coaches," Tina said. "That goes for the athletic and academic awards. They show all the kids in our program that working hard on and off the field is definitely seen by the awards."
Italy collected four of the five superlative awards, five first and second team selections and two girls were named to the honorable mention list. While Tina collected the 15-2A Coach of the Year and April Lusk nabbed the district's MVP award, Jones' won Newcomer of the Year.
Lusk added the MVP award to a laundry list of awards and accolades that include a four-time run to Austin, a 2A track and field championship and a Texas Girls Coaches Association All-State selection.
As a part of Tina's (18-4, 12-0) Lady Gladiators, Lusk earned a .638 batting average and .708 on-base percentage and slugged 1.310 percent of her opportunities at the plate. She also hit five home runs and drove in 25 runs in 19 games and 58 at-bats.
"April has been a strong force for Italy softball for four years," Tina said. "Her ability to move, stop and throw a softball is amazing, but her athleticism is even greater. She can bunt or hit the ball out of the park, and please don't blink because she will steal a base two. What she brought to out team last year — her force and leadership — will be missed next year."
Italy's speedster also stole 25 bases, which tied the team lead with sophomore Taylor Boyd. Lusk's batting average was bettered by only one player — Tina's daughter Brycelen.
MORE DEFENSE, PLEASE
Brycelen, the 15-2A Defensive Player of the Year, finished her junior season with a .638 BA/.704 OBP/1.063 SLG slash line while hitting two home runs and accounting for almost 30 percent of the Lady Gladiators' 177 RBIs. Those runs driven in also tied her sister Alyssa Richard's single-season RBI record (52).
Though she was an ample offensive force for Italy, it was the aspect of defense that put her on the radar of the district's coaches. Her fielding percentage (.993) as a nearly flawless first baseman was best on the 11-girl roster, as were her 143 putouts in 147 attempts. Through 19 games she also committed only one error.
"She had 52 RBIs for the season and another two in playoffs," Tina said. "More importantly, Brycelen plays an exceptional first base. She's rock-solid, so much so that her teammates and I are confident if the ball is thrown to her, we will get the out. There aren't any guarantees in the game of softball but that type of defense from her — and the rest of this year's team — might be as close as you can get."
RISE OF THE NEW BREED
Jones, the district's Newcomer of the Year, had the team's third-best batting average (.571) and slugging percentage (.942) and best OBP (.712). She was also second on the team in triples (4) behind Lusk, fourth in RBIs behind Brycelen, Lusk and junior Jenna Holden and first in walks (17).
The Italy freshman, though, may have had the biggest adjustment after changing positions to catcher midway through the non-district schedule.
"I asked Alex to take the challenge this year of being our catcher," Tina said. "She accepted it and ran with it. She did an outstanding job behind the plate and the bond that she and Jenna, our pitcher, have is the exact way it should be. Although her catching was key to her winning this award, the fact that she can hit and is speedy around the bases was an added bonus to the way we were able to attack teams this season."
FIRST TEAM FANTASTIC
Boyd and Holden, as well as Brooke DeBorde claimed places on the 15-2A All-District Team after helping Italy lock down teams defensively from the mound, the infield and the outfield.
Holden was arguably the district's best pitcher, posting a 17-2 record, six shutouts, 18 complete games, a .895 winning percentage and a 2.13 ERA. She struck out 63 batters in 92 innings and walked only 25.
Aside from being a consistent base-stealing weapon on the basepaths for Tina and the Lady Gladiator coaching staff, Boyd was a dangerous hitter. She finished the season 32-for-57 (.561) at the plate and drove in the fifth most RBIs (16) of any Lady Gladiator.
Between DeBorde's .333 batting average, her .844 fielding percentage and pitcher-frustrating 14 walks, the Italy senior punched her ticket by being the bridge between a stifling defense and an overwhelming offense.
SECOND TO NONE
Italy saw two players nab All-District Second Team selections — one a speedy, multi-faceted and three-sport senior athlete and the other a hard-hitting and gritty-defending sophomore on the rise.
Green's .435 BA/.500 OBP/.512 SLG were some of the best numbers in the district, but it may have been her intangibles that earned her a place in district history.
"I don't think you can ever undervalue defense, speed or on-the-field leadership," Tina said. "It's what meshes all these talents on one team into a single entity focused on a singular goal. That's what Decorea, a calm, cool and collected leader, was to us."
Nelson's .382 average at the plate in 46 plate appearances fell behind Green's but her nine RBIs was eighth best behind Richards, Lusk, Holden, Jones, Boyd, DeBorde and Elizabeth Garcia. She also was the eighth Lady Gladiator with double-digit RBIs despite playing three fewer games than the majority of the other girls.
"I think Karley's success shows that we're doing things the right way here in Italy and that hard work is rewarded when you leave enough blood, sweat and tears on the field," Tina continued. "April, Brooke, Decorea and Elizabeth will leave to pursue paths outside of high school but Karley and hard working girls like her show that the tradition of winning at IHS won't end this year."
HONOR AND INTELLIGENCE
While leadership and sterling spot play earned Garcia, a senior, and Hannah Carr, a freshman, All-District 2A Honorable Mention nods, unrivaled work in the classroom paved the way for 16 girls to make the 15-2A Academic All-District Team.
Brycelen, Boyd, Carr, DeBorde, Garcia, Holden, Jones and Lusk, as well as Madelyn Chambers, Andrea Galvan, Marlen Hernandez, Kimberly Hooker, Skylar Johnson, Annie Perry and Arely Salazar each made the academic team and helped the Lady Gladiators reach a cumulative GPA of 94.
Tina said more than the athletics accolades, the work in the classroom shows how well rounded her team is from top to bottom.
"I am most proud of the Academic All-District list," she continued. "I believe we had the largest group for this award. "The girls we had step up and make examples had a lot to do with everything we were this season — the seniors especially. Elizabeth was new this year but was a player that no matter how good or bad things were going, she would stay positive. Decorea was the surprise player that was able to pick up the game quickly and played the outfield with great passion. April's knowledge of the game will be missed and her spot on the lineup will be hardest to fill. Brooke's leadership and dedication to the program on and off the field will be missed greatly, too. She received the Johnny Jones's Fighting Heart Award this year and it speaks volumes of who she is as a player and a person."
Marcus S. Marion, @MarcusMarionWNI