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Diamond Dreams

Former baseball star Sarah Hudek now making her mark with Aggie softball.

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Texas A&M right fielder Sarah Hudek might look like any other freshman trying to adjust to the speed of playing NCAA Division I softball.

Evidence of that showed as she led the Aggies in strikeouts as they entered Southeastern Conference play earlier this month with a 19-1 record.

Running out on the field wearing the same No. 18 her dad wore in his high school days, she resembles most other players, and that's the way she wants it.

However, Hudek is different than just about anyone who's ever played NCAA softball. That's because the freshman from George Ranch High School near Houston already has a year of college experience, albeit in a completely different sport.

This time last year, Hudek blazed a trail for women on a college baseball diamond, hurling 75-to-80 mph left-handed pitches for Bossier Parish Community College in Bossier City, La., where she earned a scholarship after two varsity baseball seasons at George Ranch.

"(Being a trail blazer) wasn't my intention, but obviously it's going to be viewed as that," said Hudek, who earned a 2-1 record with 12 strikeouts in 20 innings last year for the Cavaliers. "I wanted to always be viewed as just another player."

On the baseball diamond, that was difficult for a girl and young woman, but she has been making it look easy since a one-year softball experiment as a 10-year-old. After that, it was all baseball, all the time. It helped that her father, John Hudek, ran a baseball academy.

John pitched in six MLB seasons, including four with the Houston Astros where he was an All-Star as a rookie in 1994.

He has a picture of Sarah at 3 years old holding a baseball. She seemingly never let go of it with the exception of that one year when she played softball with current Aggies teammate Kelbi Fortenberry, a freshman from East Bernard.

At 11 and 12 years old, Hudek made Little League Baseball All-Star teams, and even then her dad wasn't sure how far she could go.

"As we went to 13, I said 'you know what, she's probably going to get to this level, and then she's going to start to get outmuscled and all that,'" John Hudek recalled. "Well, she didn't get outmuscled, and she was holding her ground as well as anyone else."

When it came time to move from eighth grade to high school, the George Ranch girls basketball coach had the athletic Hudek slotted for a possible spot on the varsity as a freshman. One problem: high school basketball ends after baseball practice begins, and Hudek had her sights set on the big diamond.

Sarah rebuffed multiple attempts to change her mind. After making sure the school wouldn't block her attempts to try out for its baseball team, John Hudek tried to prepare his daughter for the team tryout that could potentially be the end of her baseball days.

 

She's Got Game

Sarah Hudek is no stranger to playing in big games. As a pitcher for the US Women's National Baseball Team, Hudek helped Team USA to a gold medal at the Women's Baseball World Cup. Now, the freshman from Sugar Land is a starter in right field for Texas A&M. With Hudek's help, the Aggies entered SEC play with a 19-1 record and a top-five national ranking.

"I told her that things aren't going to be easy," John Hudek said. "You can't fail your freshman year. You can't go out there and even struggle. One bad outing and they're pretty much going to try to write you off because you're a girl. That would have been wrong, but I was being realistic."

While dad was trying to be pragmatic, Sarah used another teaching moment from her father. It was a common theme he has expressed to her at every stop on her journey from T-ball to now as A&M's starting right fielder.

"I didn't really think anything different," she said. "I was just another player. As I got older, it got more obvious. It started to bother me when people would stare and point and stuff. But my dad taught me to use it to my advantage. That was a huge tool that I used. It was kind of like that chip on my shoulder."

While she used that chip to succeed during her two years on junior varsity, it never created an ego that demanded attention for her accomplishments.

In August 2014, Mo'ne Davis captured the nation's attention by becoming the first girl to pitch a shutout at the Little League World Series.

The performance by the 13-year-old from Philadelphia set off a firestorm of publicity that included a Sports Illustrated cover, a documentary by director Spike Lee, an ESPY Award from ESPN and much more.

Earlier that spring and summer of 2014, Hudek preferred to stay away from the spotlight that many sought to shine on her growing story.

As a junior, Hudek made the varsity and pitched in relief for a team that advanced to the Class 4A state semifinals. That summer, she was named the USA Baseball Sportswoman of the Year after leading the Women's National Team to a silver medal at the Women's Baseball World Cup. She was 1-1 with a 0.53 ERA in 17 innings and hit .444.

The summer after her senior year, she helped lead the United States Women's National Baseball Team to a gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.

After her 2014 breakthrough and again when she went to Bossier Parish, her dad said Good Morning America tried to get her to come on the show, and interview requests poured in from national magazines. Hudek shunned the majority of them.

She talked to local newspapers over the years, and she did what John called her best "Nuke" LaLoosh impression from the movie Bull Durham for an MLB Network interview where she talked about "hoping to help the ball club" over and over.

Sarah worried that too much exposure would make her pitching look like a publicity stunt. John said she hated the thought that people wanting to talk to her took away from teammates who played every day and contributed to the team's success.

"She doesn't want limelight," John said. "She will talk herself down to talk someone else up who did something that really should get noticed and didn't get noticed because of what she's doing. She's quiet in that way."

That yearning to be just another player can be seen in her decision to give up baseball and find a college softball team. She could have stuck with baseball and transferred to a small university where women before her have pitched. In 2015, Ghazaleh Sailors finished her career at the University of Maine-Presque Isle, a university with roughly 1,200 students. At that point, Sailors was the only woman playing college baseball in America.

In 2016, there was just Hudek.

However, Hudek's competitive nature insisted her next step needed to be at the highest level possible. That meant playing for an NCAA Division I school, and to do that she needed to switch sports.

She thought telling her father would be difficult, but they both said they knew baseball with the boys and men had an expiration date. When she sat down to tell him, he told her it was her life and all he cared about was her happiness.

 

Switching to Softball

Hudek has proved to be a quick study for A&M coach Jo Evans, finding her way into the starting lineup in her first career college softball game. She has proven to be a dangerous hitter toward the bottom of the Aggies' lineup, where she belted a home run in the team's series-clinching win against Mississippi State on March 12. In all, Hudek has reached base in nearly 40 percent of her at bats.

John said he, Sarah's mother, Tracy, and her twin sister, Haven, are proud of what she accomplished.

"She went and she proved that she could do it," he said. "I don't think I could buck the system the way she did."

Changing to softball brought more hard work. It meant learning how to hit again, and how to do it in a totally different sport. More importantly, it meant giving up pitching. Her strong arm and athleticism help her in the outfield, but the pitching motions simply do not translate between the sports.

Hudek attended a hitting camp at Texas A&M, and it didn't take long for coach Jo Evans to convince her that Aggieland would be a terrific landing spot. Hudek spent the summer playing softball for Impact Gold, a club team in Houston, before using the fall to get to know her new A&M teammates.

Once she arrived in College Station, the happiness of being just another member of the team took over.

"Growing up with my dad being a big role model in my life, it was the hardest thing to tell him," Hudek said. "I mean just for my family and I, it was the best decision. I felt like this move was the best decision for my happiness."

Still, she misses not being on the mound.

"(I miss) the pressure of being a pitcher and having the game in your hands. It's kind of hard to relate to that in the outfield," Hudek said. "Nothing compares to the adrenaline you feel."

Now, she finds the emotion in other ways, like knocking in both runs of a 2-0 victory over Sam Houston on Feb. 15 in just her fifth college softball game. Or coming up to bat with the bases loaded against Ohio State on Feb. 11 in her third game and delivering a hit to help clear the bases.

It is in those moments that Hudek's baseball mentality takes over. Standing at second base pumping her fists and motivating her teammates in a way that might be a little different than most softball players.

"Baseball gives you that raw emotion with no filter in a sense," she said.

Evans doesn't want her to change.

"I love it. Our team needs that," Evans said. "To me, you want somebody who is not going to be self conscious about being fired up when they hit a double or a triple or score a run. I want that, because I have that in me. Anytime I see a kid with fire in her belly like Sarah, that's contagious. I want her to keep doing that. I don't want her to hold back."

That fire helped fuel the Aggies' hot start in their quest to advance to the NCAA tournament for a 16th consecutive season. Hudek says her hitting is still a work in process, but through the team's first 20 games, she was batting .295 with nine RBIs and five steals.

And while she led the team in strikeouts, she also topped the squad in walks.

Evans appreciates what Hudek has added to the team.

"I like that she's come in and said 'I don't know everything, and I need to learn some things,'" Evans said. "She is just a sponge. She's a great teammate and her teammates love playing with her. She has a love for the game."

That love means baseball may be there in the future. She likely will have a chance to play for the USA women's team again, although she didn't this past summer as she worked to improve her softball skills.

Even if she never toes the rubber again, Hudek is comfortable with the path she has left others to follow.

"I don't regret anything," Hudek said. "If I could go back, I'd do same exact thing again 1,000 more times. I'm just lucky to have the experiences I had in baseball because they made the person I am today as well as a player."

Douglas Pils, class of 1992, isĀ general manager of the Texas A&M Student Media Department.

 

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