GRANVILLE — Carla Passini almost always has a smile on her face when she’s on the softball diamond.
“I just love softball,” Passini says. “It puts me in such a good mood. There’s no other sport that really quite does it. When I’m playing, it’s just beautiful.”
The Putnam County sophomore could be sliding into third with her seventh triple of the season. She’d be smiling.
Or the 16-year-old catcher could be knocking in three runs with a homer over the St. Bede fence. She definitely would be smiling then.
The Standard native (she’s only moved once in her life — a block away) could even be finding out that she has been chosen as the NewsTribune’s Softball Player of the Year.
“You watch all those award shows and how they’re always like, ‘I can’t believe it!'” Passini says. “OK. I kind of know how they feel because this is kind of like the Grammys of softball, in this area anyway.”
Passini earned it with an album of accomplishments as she led the area in triples, RBIs and slugging percentage. She was second in doubles and homers, third in runs scored and fourth in batting average.
Her 37 RBIs would have led the high school boys this season. Her .670 slugging percentage is far better than anything her hero Mark Grace hit during his career with the Cubs. (She wears No. 17 just like Grace.) And her seven triples beat out speedsters like teammate Kara Decker and Earlville’s Alyx Gunderson.
“She’s deceptively fast,” Putnam County head coach John Keener says. “I don’t know how she does it; she just ends up on third. I always joke with her about base running that I need one of those harnesses like the parents with the little kids at the mall have so I can yank her back sometimes. She’s aggressive. But she’s smart about it.”
“A lot of the times they probably should have been doubles, but I just tried to help the team out,” Passini said. “Kayla Smith’s behind me and if I’m 60 feet closer, she’ll get me in.”
Passini’s .418 batting average was well below Smith’s area-leading .465 batting average, but she had an on-base percentage of .495 and her OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.165 would make “Moneyball” author Billy Beane froth at the mouth.
She had at least one hit in 27 of her 31 games and only struck out three times all season. Passini probably would have had even more hits if she didn’t have to sit three games after being injured sliding into second at Earlville.
“I knew I had a good one there,” Keener says. “And it’s proved to be so. She’s definitely a leader. When she was hurt and out a couple of games, it made us move people around, and she was the one person that we really could not do without because it kind of messed up our whole line-up.”
Keener brought Passini up to varsity as a freshman last year halfway through the season. In 20 games, she hit .385 with four doubles, two triples and 13 RBIs to help lead Putnam County to a regional championship.
“Not only are her offensive stats tremendous, but also her defensive ability,” Keener says. “I know the umpires love her. They don’t get hit quite as often with her catching.”
As catcher of the 22-11 Lady Panther squad, Passini calls most of the games and has an above-average arm to second.
“During the season, most of the time, I let Carla call her own games,” Keener says. “And we talk about it and she always has a reason. If I ask her why she called that pitch or where was that location, why didn’t we go here, she always has a reason and a pretty sound one. We never have arguments about that. Great girl. Ranked No. 1 in her class. How could you argue with that?”
Maybe Passini’s greatest moment this year was her three-run homer in a win against St. Bede on May 12. In Keener’s 12 years as Putnam County’s coach, he says he’s only seen one other girl hit the ball over the fence.
“There were a lot of opportunities for her to drive in runs, and she came through in a lot of clutch situations,” Keener says. “A good example is the three-run homer against (Caitlin) Gidcumb in the St. Bede game to seal that win.”
“We were battling out there for a while,” Passini says of the homer. “I had a full count. I just had to keep battling until I got the pitch I wanted. And she threw me a rise ball. I’m pretty sure it was a rise ball. That’s a good advantage of being a catcher. I can tell (what the pitch is) when I’m batting.”
The only disadvantage to the homer was that it happened when church bells were ringing. For the rest of the season, Putnam County fans rang bells when Passini was batting, much to the sophomore’s embarrassment.
“I didn’t hit anymore home runs, but I still got hits,” Passini says of the bells’ effect.
In her free time this summer, Passini coaches a softball team of grade school girls. The team is off to an 0-5 start this year, a record that Passini isn’t quite used to with the regularly successful Lady Panther team.
“It’s really helped me to see that winning isn’t always everything,” Passini says. “As long as you’re just making improvements, that’s the main thing.”
Passini wants to improve her game, as well, in order to play softball at the collegiate level. Her biggest flaw at the moment is an inability to throw consistently from her knees.
“Her arm needs to be a little bit stronger,” Keener says. “We keep working on her release. It’s not that her arm’s not strong, but for the college level it needs to be a little bit stronger. She needs to improve not coming out of the down position and throwing from her knees to first or third like some of the really great catchers do. But she’s got the tools. She’ll work hard at it.”
“I watched Megan Willis from Texas — I’m a big Longhorns fans — and she throws from her knees everywhere,” Passini says. “I’m just amazed by it. It just looks like she’s a miniature person when she’s on her knees. I’d really like to work on getting to that point.”
Passini still has two more seasons of high school softball to improve her game and will be returning to a team that only lost one senior to graduation and had six players on the NewsTribune All-Area Team. Definitely something to smile about.
“We always stress team,” Keener says. “There’s no one person more important than the team, and Carla knows that better than anyone. Individual honors at the end of the year are nice, though, and certainly I think she deserves it.”