The whir of a pitching machine droned away, rhythmically interrupted by a metallic pinging as Danielle Devereux took batting practice in a batting cage inside the auxiliary gym at Glenelg last week.
More appropriately, she's taking bunting practice.
Devereux lays down bunt after bunt, deadening pitch after pitch from a machine cranked too high. Then, abruptly, Coach Cameron Rahnama puts a halt to the exercise.
"Jump over to the other side." yelled Rahnama, "Try Chinese."
Without a flinch, Devereux switched from a right-handed batter to a lefty and positioned herself at the back of the batter's box, holding the bat loosely with just her right hand, the knob of the bat tucked in the crook of her elbow.
As the pitching machine whizzed another ball, Devereux charged toward the machine. Then in one motion she deadened the ball so it landed in front of the plate with a soft thud and sprinted a few steps in the direction of first base.
"She's just gone. Try throwing her out," Rahnama said.
Even before Devereux learned her new trick -- a technique that originated with the Chinese Olympic fast pitch team -- teams had trouble throwing her out. She batted .478 last season, legging out 32 hits and stealing 36 bases, parlaying the bunt or accompanying slap technique into a spot on the all-county and All-Met softball teams.
"I can almost remember all of the times I took a full swing [last season], so it must not have been many," said Devereux, a senior outfielder.
In a sport that can be dominated by pitchers, the bunt can be a hitter's life preserver.
Chicks may dig the long ball in baseball, as the old ESPN commercial says, but in softball, it's often all about the short ball.
"If you have a fast kid, you'd be an idiot not to do it," Rahnama said. "In softball, you can get one dominating pitcher, and it can affect the whole outcome of the game. You are forced to be resourceful if you want to win, or if you even want to compete."
Not that bunting is easy. It takes time to learn to read a charging infield and how to direct a bunt. The slap, or chop, technique is even harder to learn, but the results can be even more successful. To do that, a batter fakes a bunt to bait infielders to charge the plate, then pulls the bat back just as the pitch is released, giving fielders little time to react and keeping them honest for future at-bats.
"At first it was tough. Bunting had never been my thing," said Devereux, who began bunting as a freshman when Rahnama noticed her speed -- and her ineffectiveness at the plate otherwise.
"I just couldn't hit," she added. "I had really bad timing."
The technique has been her savior. Her .478 batting average tied for the county lead last season, and she gave county coaches fits when figuring out how to defend against the speedy leadoff hitter.
"People used to make fun of me, saying, 'Oh, Danielle can't hit,' " Devereux recalled. "Not anymore though, because I have proven it's effective."
Devereux isn't alone. Many county players don't rely on the bunt as much as she does, but most teams use it, whether it's to move runners into scoring position, to surprise a defense or to try to reach base against a pitcher hurling fastballs.
"If our team is having trouble with hitting the ball, if a pitcher is too fast, it's easy to bunt because the bat is already there," said Centennial senior Christina Chang, who legged out plenty of bunts last season. "At least you have a way to get on base or attempt to get on base when the pitcher is really fast and really hard to hit."
Besides giving batters better chances against tough pitchers, the bunt puts the defense in a bind. When a batter can fake a bunt and slap, or chop, at the ball, things get tougher, especially for corner infielders.
Play too close, and the ball can get past an infielder. Play too far back, and a bunt can turn into a single. In any case, a fielder has to field the ball quickly and cleanly, make an accurate throw to first base, and the first baseman has to catch the ball.
"That's why bunting is such an important aspect of the game," said Mount Hebron Coach Sal Milio, in his first season with the Vikings after five years at Wilde Lake, "but more important than actually bunting is bunt defense. If teams are going to give you an out, you've got to take it."
When they don't, the results can be deflating.
"It demoralizes the defense," Atholton Coach Maureen Shacreaw said. "For me it makes me mad as a coach, especially when you know the kid is doing it. The kid from Glenelg, you know she is doing it, but there are so many factors. You've got to make the play, be clean with the play, and there are so many things that can go wrong that it's to the batter's advantage."
Shacreaw may hate it when it's used against her team, but that doesn't mean she doesn't teach it. Atholton senior Meaghan Murphy is a regular bunter, and Shacreaw plans to teach newcomers to the team Julia Reynold and Allie Scott the art.
"It's a no-brainer. I have an 11-year-old daughter, and she is really quick. You don't think I am going to teach her how to bunt? If you can bunt and you are fast, you will make any varsity team in this county."