Coach Kevin Hinde of the 16U Team NC has many words to describe Teagan Ritchie. Competitor and leader top the list, but gritty might be the most fitting.
“With her athleticism, Teagan can literally play anywhere on the field. She just makes plays,” he says. “She has that presence about her on the field. She’s going to scrap and do whatever it takes, whether it’s to get an out, score a run or help her teammates get going.”
Ritchie is Fastpitch Network’s 13th ranked utility player and 34th ranked player overall. She plays primarily middle infield with some occasional time in centerfield. However, Ritchie particularly relishes the challenge of playing shortstop.
Most elite athletes get into sports at an early age, and Malayna Tamborra is no exception. The Atlanta Vipers 05 pitcher and first baseman grew up with softball, even more so than most.
Malayna plays for her mom, Stacy Tamborra. Tamborra played college ball at Florida State, and after giving some lessons and working with a local team, she decided to dive into coaching. She bought the building for her business, Champions Fastpitch Academy, just months before Malayna was born.
While Tamborra encouraged her kids to play other sports, Malayna grew up watching the players her mom coached become great. Soon, she decided she wanted to be a great softball player, too. But greatness doesn’t come without dedication and hard work. Especially early on, Malayna learned to use what she had to be successful.
Sophia Stein likes to be in control of the game…literally. As a five-year-old, she would stand on the pitching mound and chase balls when they were hit, grab them from the outfield, and run to first base to tag players out.
At sixteen, Stein plays shortstop for the So Cal Athletics Wellbaum/Briggs 16U , is a leader who still wants the ball in her hands, and she relishes the pressure of making the big play.
“I would say my effort on the field is one of the most evident things, because it’s the one thing I control,” said Stein. “I’ve been told effort is how people will remember you or don’t remember you, so I always try to give 100 percent. If there was a game on the line, I’d want to be at bat or making a play in the field.”
Emily Digby is not big on stats. In fact, when asked about her numbers from last season she couldn’t recall any specifics. If you find it surprising that a 16-year old athlete doesn’t recall their own stats, then you probably don’t know Digby very well.
Digby is the consummate team player for the Georgia Impact 18U, a squad with a track record of success and an expectation that drives student athletes to become better in all aspects of softball while also competing in the classroom.
The Dacula, Georgia resident made a big jump from 14U to 18U in the fall of 2020 and this will be her first season of playing at this level. A right-handed .400 hitter with plus power, Digby is now competing in a league where pitchers put a lot spin and speed on their pitches, the game is faster and the competition will be ratcheted up. Despite these challenges, she has already impressed her coaches and teammates despite a small sample size.
When batters step into the box against Makayla Huddleston, they don’t know what’s coming, but they do know each pitch will be precisely where Huddleston wants it to be. The meticulous righty dominates through control, something her coach Michael Danley of the Tennessee Mojo 2023 has seen since he started coaching Huddleston in 10U.
“The first time that I ever saw her she just absolutely wowed us. I mean threw it well, had great control, hit her spots, mixed speeds. She’s just got a great knack for getting people out,” he says.
Huddleston has continued to wow, leading the Mojo to the 10U 2016 PFG National Championship title and and then the 12U title two years later. Now as Fastpitch Network’s 15th ranked pitcher for the recruiting class of 2023 and the 28th ranked player overall, Huddleston believes she’s dominated in large part because she continues to hone the strengths her coach saw the first time he met her.
When asked to describe softball sensation Renae Cunningham in just two words, much like trying to hit her pitching, it becomes a tough task. Some may choose the words “Gentle Giant” given her stature and humility. Some may be more straightforward and use “Great Player”. Her head coach Cray Allen, of the Beverly Bandits – Allen, liked the words “Controlled, Calculated”.
“Her approach is always a calm one. It seems like the moment is never too big for her, which allows her teammates to feed off that quiet confidence,” said Allen. “The way she goes about her game is such a blessing in today’s world of highs and lows. She never gets rattled and stays calm and focused through each situation.”
In a day and age of the never ending selfie and self promotion, the way Cunningham carries herself on the field is refreshing. Even Cunningham admits, “I’m a pretty simple person.”
Some leaders use their voice. Some lead by example. And, some lead using their actions. Very rarely do you find a leader who does all three, but Alyssa Hastings isn’t just any type of ballplayer.
Hastings, a sophomore sensation who plays shortstop for the Tennessee Fury [Premier 2022] U18 squad, is hard to miss. She’s typically the first player out on the infield grass, the first player at practice, and one of the last players to go home. Her work ethic and softball IQ, at just 16 years of age, is off-the-charts.
For all of her special softball gifts – the quick hands, smooth glove, the patient approach at the plate, incredible bat control – it is her team first approach that stands out above all else.
Moriah Polar dominates the plate as a “triple-threat slapper where a single is always a double,” according to her coach, Steve Jones, with Impact Gold National 16U in Pearland, Texas. She leads the team in on-base percentage (OBP) and stolen bases and “she covers ground like no other player I’ve seen – she has crazy range.”
“Not only is she over the top athletically gifted and has honed her skill set to be one of the best in the country; she is also one of the primary heartbeats of this team.” Polar is ranked as the No. 3 outfielder and tied for No. 27 overall in the 2023 class, according to Fastpitch Network.
Jones has coached Polar since she was 5-years old. He smiles as he remembers her out in the field with her little pink glove. She probably didn’t gracefully catch every ball that was hit to her back then – in fact Jones chuckles that she hardly caught a ball – but Jones loved her overall athleticism and how coachable and eager she was to learn. “What I saw was a kid that tracked the balls and a kid that was willing to do anything I asked.” Polar has been his lead-off hitter since she was 7-years old.
Savanna Bedell has all the ingredients of an elite level athlete – speed, power, and strength. These defining characteristics coupled with her fiery personality and passion for the game set her apart from others in the field.
Many hitters have stepped into the box and underestimated Bronwyn Borden.
And many of them have slumped back to the dugout, shaking their head after an unsuccessful at-bat.
There’s more to Borden than meets the eye. She stands an unassuming 5-foot-3 in the pitcher’s circle, but has never let her size deter her from raising her stock as a Class of 2023 prospect.
“I definitely go out there and give 110% because I do want to show people that just because I’m small doesn’t mean I can’t throw hard and be really good,” Borden said.
Borden is a three-sport athlete at Brewer High School in Alabama and has played with the Prospex softball organization for the last five years.
As a pitcher, Borden said her curveball and her changeup are her two best pitchers, and she tops out around 62 miles per hour. The key for a pitcher her size is using her whole body to get the desired effect on her pitches.
“I try to make sure I drive with my legs,” she said.
When a hitter does make her pay for a mistake, a circumstance becoming less and less common, the mental toughness already required of someone of her stature translates into the ability to quickly move on and not dwell on things.
“I just try to wash it away and think next batter,” she said.
Matt Adams, who runs the Prospex program, called Borden a hard worker who plays well beyond her size.
“She can beat you in the circle multiple ways,” Adams said. “She has a very good changeup that she can throw in any count. But what makes her tough is she can also throw it by you with good velocity and late movement.”
Borden can also play outfield or middle infield when not in the circle, but she has earned the respect of dozens of hitters who have stepped in the batter’s box and presumed an easy hit was coming.
“I definitely think that I’ve grown a lot in the past year or so,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot better, but I still have a long way to go. I feel like I can do so much more if I just keep working.”
Part of that growth is in her knowledge of the game, which is in the upper echelon of players her age.
“She is not a pitcher who just throws what is called from the dugout or by the catcher,” Adams said. “She really does understand why she throws certain pitches in particular counts and situations. She is smart above her age.”
“It’s very exciting, because with my NSR profile, it really makes me feel better and makes me think I have potential to be recruited,” Borden said.
Borden’s recruiting process will in essence begin in September, when college coaches are permitted to contact her during her junior year. She knows some schools will not look past the surface of her measurables, but she is trusting in herself and the strides she makes daily to get better.
“I faced the fact that this is just how I was born,” she said. “I definitely try to always work hard, because my time will come. Somebody will notice me if I keep working.”
You won’t catch Borden without a smile on her face and she strives to be an encouraging and uplifting player with any team she plays on.
“She is a great kid who is one of the hardest working kids you will find. She is a student of the game, which is hard to find in most players,” Adams said.