There have been battles over territory, but in Michelle Collins' case, the issue was over whose land she would pitch on.
The Surrattsville High School softball team is thankful it landed her within its confines, providing the final ingredient to an already fine recipe. On a team loaded with hot-hitting seniors, this curly-haired freshman had been a poised force on the mound, leading the Hornets to an 18-game winning streak. The streak was ended last week by La Plata, 4-1, in the Maryland Class A Region II final.
Throughout the season, Collins was imposing. She won 16 of the Hornets' 18 games, including throwing a perfect game, five other no-hitters and two one-hitters. In the other games, she allowed the opposition no more than four hits.
She had a reputation in junior high for being a talented pitcher, so that explains why there was such hoopla among softball coaches over where she would attend high school. Although she lives in Clinton, a proposed change in school zoning lines could have sent her to nearby Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine. The change, however, never materialized.
Collins didn't know what to expect when she tried out for the team. "I just came to pitch," she said. "I didn't really think I was going to do that good, but I did okay. I haven't really done that good."
Her statistics look good. Her 50-plus mph fastball is hard to hit for her own teammates -- let alone opposing batters -- and she has excellent control, with 161 strikeouts and a 0.40 ERA.
Her performance was important this season, according to Surrattsville softball coach Jim St. Ledger. While most high school pitchers throw in the upper 40s, he said Collins' fast pitches do not give hitters enough time to react.
"I've never seen a ninth grader throw this hard in this part of the country," St. Ledger said, comparing Collins to pitchers he has seen in the Southwest and Midwest.
For her batterymate, catcher Debbie Owen, it has meant putting more padding in her glove. "I caught her last summer, and I'm pretty much used to it now," she said. "Everybody kind of looks at her with awe and says, 'I can't believe you're crazy enough to get back there,' but now it's just my position and I don't think about it that much."
Unable to get solid base hits off the 15-year-old Collins, opposing teams are left trying to bunt to get runners on base. Her performance has also created boredom for the defense at times, especially the outfielders. For example, left fielder Cindy Crocker, a former pitcher, did not have a ball hit to her until the 12th game of the season (yes, she caught it).
But this type of success is nothing new to Surrattsville. One of the most consistent teams in the area, the Hornets have won three championships (1980, 1981 and 1983), and have had winning streaks of 40 and 44 games (a state record). Since 1979, they are 149-18 and have made the playoffs eight straight times.
The reasons for their success are experience and togetherness. This year's team included seven seniors, and most of them live in the Clinton area and have played together since they were younger.
One player, senior shortstop Kitty Harple, led the team in hitting with a .724 average, six home runs and 41 RBI. "We've had to work for it," she said of the Hornets' record, "because when you come out and have seven seniors, sometimes you get overconfident with the experience you have, and you've got to have a mental view of it to work for it."
For his part, St. Ledger drills his team hard, according to third baseman Chris Grasso (.686, 38 RBI). "He hits 'em hard; he doesn't make it an easy practice," she said. "He makes it a challenge; he tries to get by all the fielders. Sometimes he succeeds, but he taught us so well."
St. Ledger said he has always tried to aim high, but one thing he will not take credit for is his players' early development. He points to the Clinton Boys and Girls Club for that, since many of his players (including Collins) have come up through that system with solid fundamental skills. He just teaches the finer points of the game.
Because the program has been consistent and the school is within the area, it has been easier to attract players, according to St. Ledger. "Some of them have dreamed of coming to this school for the tradition, not just for the school but for the community," he said. "I want to make this so they'll never forget it."