2017 Softball Player of the Year: Mental, physical adjustments yield great results for Hawks’ Grayson

Skyline junior Tamara Grayson, the area's leader in pitching wins (18), strikeouts (201) and home runs hit (8), is The Northern Virginia Daily's 2017 Softball Player of the Year. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Throughout Tamara Grayson’s first two seasons with Skyline High School’s varsity softball team, she was content playing a supplementary role to her older teammates. That mentality, she said last week, completely changed as her junior season approached in 2017.

No longer were her contributions going to be limited to simply playing well for her senior teammates, she decided. Grayson, the Hawks’ starting pitcher, wanted to chase loftier goals. The 2016 season had seen the Hawks come within a win of reaching their first state tournament, and a year later Grayson wanted to take Skyline’s softball program to heights it had never reached in its 10-year history.

It didn’t take long for those around Grayson to notice the attitude change.

“Just the way she came in, you could tell it was different from last year,” Hawks head coach John Ritter said. “And she had a good year last year, but this year, I mean, it was just little things she took the extra steps to do. The extra time to throw when we were done with practice and stuff like that, to stay and pitch. That stuff means a lot and it worked out good for her.”

As Grayson’s mentality and approach to the sport changed, so too did her statistical numbers. After spending a season and a half as the Hawks’ workhorse in the pitching circle – she was a mid-season call-up as a freshman – she took the next step into one of Skyline’s starring roles in 2017 as the Hawks returned to the Region 3A East tournament semifinals and set a program record for wins in a season (20).

Grayson’s junior season included an 18-5 individual record as a pitcher, 201 strikeouts – versus only 12 walks – and a 1.71 ERA in 171 innings pitched. She was the local leader in wins, strikeouts and innings pitched, earned first-team recognition on the All-Conference 28 and All-Region 3A East teams and was a second team Virginia High School League Group 3A all-state selection.

The area’s most prolific pitcher in 2017 is also The Northern Virginia Daily’s Softball Player of the Year.

“She had personal goals for herself, where she wanted to be, where she wanted to get,” Ritter said. “I know strikeouts was one of them. She threw a couple one-hitters, and the shutouts she had. Just stuff like that. She did a really good job. Just the way she came in with the way she approached the season I think, with the confidence she had, had a lot to do with it.”

Grayson certainly reaped the benefits that come with increased varsity experience. Her confidence level, her vocal leadership and her ability to more easily implement helpful tips from her coaches all rose to greater levels this year, she said. But she also underwent a mechanical transformation in her pitching stride that propelled her to more success in the circle.

Prior to this past season, Grayson said, she would drag the side of her right foot along the ground when driving off the rubber during a pitch instead of dragging her toes, a flaw that came about after she underwent hip surgery to repair a cracked growth plate several years ago.

Grayson said she’d been aware of the hitch in her motion – Ritter, her travel softball coaches and even Skyline fans had pointed it out to her – but she developed a persistent fear of re-injuring her hip while pitching and struggled to correct her stride.

“The change was hard because it took me forever to break the habit,” Grayson said.

In the offseason leading up to the 2017 high school campaign, however, Grayson became determined to fix the problem and worked diligently at home to correct her form. By the middle of the travel ball season, she said, she had shaken the old habit.

As a result, Grayson’s velocity rose and her strikeout rate increased from 0.86 per inning in 2016 to 1.18 this past season. The right-hander’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly 17 to 1 in 2017.

“It gives me more power,” Grayson said of the adjustment to her drive foot, “and I can really snap and get the spin on my ball because I’m not restraining power from my hips.”

Grayson, who sports a six-pitch arsenal featuring a fastball, changeup, curveball – her most consistent pitch, she said – screwball, rise ball and drop ball, helped the Hawks post 10 shutouts in 25 games. And while she stifled opposing batters from within the circle, she was doing damage to her pitching counterpart from the batter’s box on a regular basis.

Grayson, who didn’t have a home run at the varsity level prior to the start of the 2017 season, hit eight this past season to lead all local softball players. She said she “has no clue” where the sudden power surge came from.

“When I hit the first one I was like what is wrong with me? Then I kept hitting them. … Somebody was like what are you eating? And I was like I don’t know, I’m just hitting the ball,” Grayson said with a laugh.

“I think John helping me with my stance is really helping. Last year I was too open and this year I’m like perfectly (aligned).”

Grayson finished the year with a .393 batting average – the 10th-best mark in the area – and ranked fifth among local players with 21 RBIs.

“It’s fun because you just don’t wanna be that pitcher who only pitches,” Grayson said. “You wanna be that pitcher who can bat and pitch, and I think I’m getting pretty good at that.”

Grayson, who has seen her team fall in the regional semifinals to two-time state champion Warhill in each of the last two seasons, will have one more chance next season to make good on her desire to help get Skyline into the state tournament.

She will have plenty of experienced company. The Hawks had just one senior in 2017, meaning nearly the entire starting lineup – including catcher Rachel Sirbaugh, whom Ritter said is a familiar face for Grayson and plays an important part in the pitcher’s confidence level – will be back next spring.

“The thing is, you always wanna have a good senior year,” Ritter said.

“(Grayson) does the offseason stuff and she’s playing travel ball right now and everything. I think she can have a really good senior year.”