Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
TALENT — As if to deflect the attention she was receiving to her softball teammates, Phoenix junior Amanda Skaff braves the sunlight and watches them congregate near a sweltering Hagler-James Field as she reluctantly speaks of herself from about 50 yards away.
The hard-hitting shortstop doesn't like tooting her own horn, going as far as saying that her nine home runs this season is just her "getting lucky".
The classmates and coaches whom she credits won't have any such talk of luck though.
"Oh man," Phoenix head coach Jason Zanni says. "There are not enough nice things to say about her."
Standing nearby, Phoenix softball parent Kevin Scoggins chimes in.
"She is the most humble kid in the world," he says.
And then there was this: teammate Meranda Zanni taking a moment in the dugout to carefully ponder Skaff's impact.
"You watch her at practice," says Meranda, a senior. "She is really focused. I'd say she is the most focused at practice. She gets in and takes her cuts and it doesn't look like she's swinging for the fences. She's doing what she's supposed to, and that's huge."
Her dedication has resulted is a plethora of production for Phoenix (18-6), which finished tied for first place with Henley in the Skyline Conference with a 9-3 record. The Pirates will next host a Class 4A state play-in game on Thursday.
Along with her homers, the 17-year-old slugger is first on the squad in stolen bases with 16 and second in hits (42), RBIs (29) and runs scored (34). She's just as valuable defensively as a dogged shortstop, coach Zanni says.
Meranda Zanni has been equally impressive with nine homers and a team-best 43 hits, 38 RBIs and 35 runs. Zanni, who is 12-5 in the circle, will join NCAA Division II St. Augustine's University in Raleigh, N.C., next season.
The admiration Zanni has for Skaff is mutual. As Skaff prepares herself in the batter's box during games as the No. 4 hitter, she carefully observes where Zanni (No. 3 in the lineup) stands. As she steps to the plate, Skaff tries to plant exactly where Zanni did by looking for her shoe prints.
"I really look up to Meranda because she is such a great player," says Skaff, who is the daughter of Korina, a former Ashland softball player, and Fred, who played baseball growing up in Connecticut.
Their light-hearted hitting race has been an enjoyable one, they say.
"I think it's been fun," says Skaff, a 4.0 student who can also speak Spanish. "I don't know — I just try to hit the ball. Meranda was saying once how we should have a home run derby at practice for fun. She would totally cream me at that because she hits so many home runs in practice. I think I just get lucky during games."
Adds a joking Meranda: "She has given me a run for my money on home runs, that is for sure. We have been excited about it all season. Every time she hits one I'm like, 'Really? You really had to go ahead and get one?'"
Standing at just 5-foot-5, Skaff packs surprising punch.
"A lot of it has to do with how quick her decision is and how quick her hands are to the ball," coach Zanni says. "And the reality is she actually may not look like it, but she has figured out how to turn the lower half of her body into power through her wrists and hands. When she hits the ball she has a snap on that thing."
Zanni and Skaff aren't the only ones hitting well for Phoenix, which has averaged eight runs a game.
"Our No. 9 spot has been hitting the heck out of the ball this year," coach Zanni says. "These girls come up and rip the ball out of the park.
Any of these girls can step up, that's what's nice about this team. It is kind of hard to say one thing about a girl that you can't say about all of them."
And for as much excitement as the deep ball generates, coach Zanni marvels at Skaff's defensive prowess.
"The reality is, she is that quiet, consistent kid who you expect anything hit toward her to get gobbled up and thrown out at first," he says. "She wants to be a second baseman but with her range and her ability I have seen her make a diving catch going into right field from shortstop and then turn around and two plays later she is over in foul territory in left field catching a ball. Her range is phenomenal.
It is one of those things where it is comforting to a third baseman knowing they can creep in and play that short game because they have someone behind them who is going to pick up the slack and get behind them."
Behind the scenes, Skaff is as encouraging they come, coach Zanni says.
"She wouldn't say boo to anybody," he says of the three-sport athlete who plays soccer and basketball. "She is not the type to ever do anything but be positive with her teammates, and that is just a blessing in itself."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org