As thrilled as she was last year to earn a starting spot on the North Medford varsity softball team as a freshman, shortstop Joci Ellis knew there was more out there to achieve.
During her first high school campaign she was as steady in the field as a seasoned veteran but as green as her fresh-faced peers when it came to the offensive end of the game.
Ellis, however, was never one to hang her head when her freshman season ended with a .204 batting average that included more strikeouts (15) than hits (11). Instead, she called upon her own competitive instincts to become a more complete player in the offseason.
Given where she is today, it appears that's exactly what she's accomplished in short order.
"This year she's just hitting the ball hard," says North Medford senior second baseman Hannah Leming. "I don't even know what she's doing or eating but she's consistently hitting it hard every game. She can bunt, she can slap, she can hit line drives, she can hit home runs, there's really nothing she can't do. I have no idea where it comes from, but I like it."
As does Black Tornado head coach Mike Mayben, who had no doubts about Ellis' ability to take the next step in her development as a player.
"She's been phenomenal this year," says Mayben. "As far as being a kid that has all the tools, she's it."
"Joci is just a very confident athlete," adds the coach. "That made up for maybe being young in her freshman year and this year she's stepped up and been mature and even a leader on the field."
Surrounded by quite a cast of talented upperclassmen, Ellis has more than held her own at the plate and in the field for the Black Tornado (19-1, 9-0 SOH). She's hitting .437 from the No. 2 spot with a team-high 29 runs scored to go with 13 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. Her on-base percentage is a cool .564 and for someone who hadn't hit the ball out of the infield until last summer she boasts a remarkable four doubles, two triples and two home runs thus far.
"Brought into the varsity level as a freshman it was hard to grasp everything but I'm a lot more comfortable this year," says Ellis, 16.
Her inconsistent efforts at the plate last year can be related to a late switch from a right-handed hitter to a left-handed slapper. She made the change in seventh grade, albeit unwillingly at first.
"In my mind I thought I was a power hitter," she says with a laugh, "but apparently other people said I was just a regular hitter and that my speed was the key for me. I hated it at first, really hated slapping, but I love it now. It took a long time to get used to the left-handed swing because it was awkward at first but once I started hitting the ball I got used to it and got more confident with it."
Not so confident that she's actively pursuing anything more than simple contact each time at the plate. Her first career home run to sail over the fence was more a product of a good swing than anything Ellis tried to do in a 1-0 victory over Crater on April 7.
"I was just thinking triple because I saw how close they were playing me in and once I saw the hit off the bat I was just racing around the bases hoping to get to third," she says of her first at-bat in the SOH twin bill. "Then I looked up and they started waving me in and I was like, 'Home run? I don't hit home runs.' I was in shock."
Not in so much shock, however, to forget the type of player she truly is. She didn't try to put another ball to the fence for the rest of the doubleheader against Crater and hasn't since, even though she added an inside-the-park homer against Eagle Point only three days later.
"After that (first home run) I was just trying not to strike out," insists Ellis. "I figured I can't hit a home run and then strike out, that would be too embarrassing."
Making things easier throughout her high school career has been a strong cast of surrounding Tornado players, which Ellis says has allowed her to develop at her own pace. While any team would take a .437 hitter and consider it among their best, Ellis actually is only fifth on her team behind the likes of Leming (.479), Maryssa Becker (.471), Katie Williamson (.455) and Grace Jovanovic (.500).
The same goes for her role in the field, where Ellis credits Leming for easing her transition into a starting middle infielder. Leming is in her fourth year as a starting second baseman and helped Ellis along every step of the way.
"She's taught me so much about what goes on and where to go when the ball's hit to different places," says Ellis. "She's just kind of my coach on the field when the coaches couldn't be there."
Leming downplays her role, instead crediting Ellis for her natural ability and willingness to want to learn.
"She listens really well and as far as an athlete she's just phenomenal," says Leming. "She's a great softball player and learns something new every day. We communicate very well up the middle and really support each other. She's gotten a lot better than she was last year and hasn't really missed a ball. It seems like she's getting to every ball this year."
While one factor certainly isn't greater than another when it comes to the season North Medford has put together — although Becker is putting up state player-of-the-year numbers thus far with a 0.41 ERA and 176 strikeouts to 24 walks — Ellis has played a key role in the Black Tornado allowing a state-best 11 runs this year through 20 games against 155 runs scored.
"Becker is really tough to hit but if she's ever having a bad day or missing her spots, we're just always there to back her up and encourage her and do whatever we can to help out," says Ellis. "It's really nice to think that you don't have to worry about a weak spot on the field. Everyone just always seems to be in the right spot on the field and we're just so solid wherever the ball may go."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry