Friday, March 29, 2013
(Last modified: 2013-03-29 20:12:15)
Author: Seth Butler
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

As the 2013 South Atlantic Conference softball season winds down towards postseason play over the next three weeks, Tusculum College sophomore Nicole Ball is on the rise up as one of the emerging players in the league.

Ball is quickly making her mark as one of the top players in the league at the plate as just a sophomore. Through play on Wednesday, Ball ranked in the top five in a number of hitting stats against SAC competition, and overall ranks in the top-20 in most hitting stats.

In league play, the Pioneers third baseman ranks in the top five in batting average, hits, doubles, and RBIs.

It’s however been an uphill climb to do so for Ball, who missed most of her freshman season with a hand injury. Struggles at the plate marred Ball’s sophomore campaign, as she managed just eight hits in the team’s first 19 games.

First-year Tusculum coach Julie Huebner, who served as an assistant coach to Fred Gillum last spring, said Ball’s sophomore struggles were a product of a number of circumstances. She thinks mainly that Ball’s early-season slump at the plate could be traced to coming back from last year’s injury, which cost her nearly half of her freshman campaign.

“She has worked so hard in the offseason coming off her injury - I think she just really wanted it,” Huebner said following Wednesday’s doubleheader split at Carson-Newman. “The mechanics and fundamentals were there, I think she just kind of struggled at times seeing the pitches.”

Being thrust into a new position on defense also played a part into Ball’s struggles, according to Huebner. Ball started at second base last spring for the Pioneers, but Alix Kruel emerged at the position after the season-ending injury.

The defensive move carried over to this season, when Ball was moved to third base.

“She was at second base literally two days before our first game,” Huebner said. “We moved her to third just because it was better for the team.

“She’s kind of settled in at third base and done great,” Huebner said.

However, following the rough stretch to start the campaign, like Ball demonstrated during her four year career in a Lady Red uniform, she was determined to work hard to find answers.

“Not thinking (at the plate) has been the difference,” Ball said. “I’m trying to see the ball better at practice and make better cuts.

“I know it’s not perfect all the time, but I felt like I’ve made huge adjustments from the beginning of the year until now,” Ball said.

Yet it’s a hard-nosed, blue-collared approach that has allowed Ball to rebound to hit .523 over her last 14 games to launch her into the upper-echelon of hitters in the league. Ball has gone 22-of-42 at the plate since March 11, eight multi-hit games.

“I think she’s kind of put her nose in it and just said I’m going to get it done and figure out how and just made it work,” Huebner said. “She’s just a gritty kid - she plays with a lot of heart, grit and intensity.

“She just finds a way to get it done,” Huebner said. “It might not be pretty, but she’s going to do her job.”

Ball, who doesn’t like to think about her woes at the plate over the team’s first third of the season, has done her damage over the last three weeks from just about every spot in the Tusculum lineup.

She initially started her streak in the seventh hole, but as recently as this week was the team’s cleanup hitter. Finding someone who has the ability to balance the responsibilities in the four-hole for the Pioneers has been a season-long challenge.

It’s one that Ball was up to, even despite not having much experience there.

“I just see it as a challenge, basically,” Ball said. “If (Huebner’s) got me at four, fine, if she’s got me at six - I sort of take it as that I need to step up a little bit more and do my job.”

It’s been a job that Ball has taken on well, helping lead Tusculum into sole-possesion of first place in The SAC with three weeks left to play in the regular season.

“At the plate, she’s been huge over the last three weeks,” Huebner said. “I think she’s hitting over .400 in that stretch and she’s came up clutch for us.”

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