PORT ROYAL - As 2012 got under way, local high school softball players began their pre-season open gyms and many also started working out with whichever summer team they will play for.
But one dedicated local ballplayer marked the conclusion of her history-making fall season in January. Juniata sophomore Kristen Pray spent part of the first month of the year in Florida competing in the Rising Stars Winter Showcase as part of the Central PA Krunch Gold team.
Pray's participation in Rising Stars, as well as with Krunch Gold, marked several firsts for local and regional softball. She was the first local player to play in Rising Stars, and the first to be a member of an ASA Gold-class softball program.
Juniata softball player Kristen Pray was in Florida in January, taking part in the Rising Stars Winter Showcase as part of the Central PA Krunch Gold softball team.
Krunch Gold is the first of its kind in the state outside of the Philadelphia suburbs. Gold teams represent the top level of competition in the sport.
Local ASA teams have been successful in Class B, which while a step above Little League or recreation league ball is not the most competitive softball - Class B through the 14U level is similar to junior high ball, and above 14U it equates to junior varsity.
The only local team in Class A - which equates to the high school varsity level - was the 2010 14U Jaguars, on which Pray played. It and was managed by her father, Dave. But only half of the team wanted to take the step of skipping 16U and going straight to a Class A 18U season in 2011.
Kristen Pray was the sole local player to leave the team and go with those who wanted to make the move.
The 18U Class A level is difficult to compete in, and to establish from scratch and maintain such a team is harder still. It was soon obvious that this was to be a one-year solution. The next step for Kristen was not in doubt though.
"I had always wanted to be part of the Krunch since I was 9 years old and we got beat by one of their teams," she said. "Since I knew I needed a new team after this summer, and I am serious about playing in college, it was an easy decision to try out for the new Krunch Gold."
Gold level softball was created for college scouting purposes and is correlated to college scholarship opportunities.
Fortunately for Pray, Krunch had become convinced by summer 2011 that it had to establish a real Gold program, rather than exist as a farm team for Gold programs in more metropolitan areas in the northeast.
But first she had to prove her mettle. Krunch staff did not expect that much from her at tryouts. They were among other folks who underestimated Pray at first glance. She can fairly be described as tiny, and is usually smiling.
Krunch soon learned better. Having been around the game her whole life, first watching her big sister Erin, then playing herself on ever-better teams as she got older, and getting instruction from clinicians like current USA National team coach Ken Eriksen at camps, Kristen had been waiting for just such a chance. She proved more than equal to the occasion.
Summing up his decision to put Kristen on the team, Krunch Gold manager Steve Mumma said," Nobody will ever outwork this kid. And nobody here gave us more effort and wanted it more. She'll be a good one for us."
By the end of September, marathon practices gave way to a series of high-level tournaments that lasted into early November. Pray's summer batting average was over .440 in Class A ball, and was still a very fine .353 in Gold. The difference between the two numbers fairly illustrates how much harder Gold is than A-class. The team went 14-4, with only one loss by more than two runs.
Rising Stars is a veritable winter carnival of softball, with the 2012 event hosting more than 130 teams from 21 states. More than five dozen colleges were represented at the competition. True to the its name, this is where a lot of upcoming standouts first get noticed by the programs that they will compete for after high school.
Krunch came out on the plus side, winning three of the five games it played. Four of the opponents were deep south teams, who could prepare by playing ball right up to the event, rather than having a two-month layoff from real competition. After running into what Mumma called, "the best team I have ever seen, bar none," and losing by shutout, the girls fought back and defeated a Florida team with our own shutout.
"This makes us 17-6 for our first season as a Gold team," Mumma said. "Now we can claim to be legitimately established and get going on our offseason work."
"This was by far the best pitching I ever saw in my life," Pray said. "I think I could have done better at the plate (she hit .286 in five games) but I knew coming down here that I still have work to do to be as good as I can be."
Pray's unfolding softball story can serve as a guide and an inspiration for other local players. The odds are long for getting a scholarship, but she isn't concerned about the odds. After all, despite the fact there have always been some folks who have underestimated her, there have never yet been any who were proven right to do so.