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2018 Softball Player of the Year: A mentally stronger, more determined Sirbaugh thrived for Hawks

Skyline junior Rachel Sirbaugh thrived at the plate in 2018, posting an area-best .646 batting average and 30 RBIs. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Skyline softball coach John Ritter has known Rachel Sirbaugh since she was about 4 years old, and even back then he could tell the future Hawk catcher had a certain hard-working quality about her. That work ethic never left Sirbaugh in the years to come, but as she prepared to enter her junior season at Skyline, her determination to do well just felt more intense to her head coach.

Sirbaugh, already a varsity veteran as she entered her third season with Skyline in 2018, indeed underwent an enlightenment of sorts between her sophomore and junior seasons, she’d say several days after the Hawks’ season ended with a loss to Tabb in the VHSL Class 3 state semifinals on June 8.

It was an adjustment rooted in struggles she experienced at the plate in 2017, during which she asked Ritter to remove her from her customary third spot in the batting order because she felt she simply “wasn’t getting it done” during a prolonged slump about midway through the season.

“It was just very frustrating last year and I let my emotions get the best of me,” Sirbaugh said while sitting inside Skyline’s dugout on a recent afternoon. “I think I attribute that to just being young and not being mature enough to just realize that that’s part of the game. It sets you up for failure, you’re not gonna have a 5-for-5 night every night. And I think that just positive attitude, more than anything, helped my batting average and helped my on-base percentage and everything a lot more this year, just having a better attitude.”

Alongside that attitude shift came what will go down as one of the all-time greatest single-season performances in the school’s 11-year history.

Sirbaugh, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2018 Softball Player of the Year, batted an astounding .646 in 21 games for the Hawks in 2018, tallying 42 hits in 65 at-bats. Her batting average was by far the best among area players this season, and her 16 doubles, 30 RBIs and 23 runs scored also ranked among the area’s best.

Sirbaugh did it all while locked back into the third spot in the lineup for the entire season.

“I think the difference between this year and last year, she’s always focused, she’s always practiced hard and everything, but I think she was just motivated that she was gonna go into that spot and do well,” Ritter said. “And she did. I mean, the kid bats (over) .600, she’s got all these doubles, all these RBIs. … The pressure she handled very well.”

Sirbaugh agreed that she was able to thrive in pressure situations this season more than in years past, particularly in run-producing situations. In those same scenarios a season ago, she said, she’d “freak out” and often come up empty when given the chance to drive in runs.

In 2017, Sirbaugh batted .378 with four doubles and 14 RBIs. This past spring she went hitless just once – in an 0-for-4 outing during a win over William Monroe in the Region 3B championship game on May 31 – and, perhaps most impressively, struck out just one time all season.

“I just go up there, honestly, and just clear my mind,” said Sirbaugh, who noted that she’s always had a keen eye for the strike zone – a byproduct of being a catcher – and has never been one to strike out often. “You always wanna look at where the defense is, but I just go up there and swing. You can’t have anything in your mind about ‘I need to do this’ and ‘I need to keep my hands back’ and all that. You just need to go up there with a clear mind and just hit it, and if the ball falls, it does.”

As impressive as her offensive production was in 2018, Sirbaugh did far more than hit the ball for a Skyline squad that reached the state tournament for the first time in program history.

A stalwart defender behind the plate, she didn’t commit an error in 21 games, surrendered only two passed balls all season according to Ritter, and discouraged opposing baserunners from attempting to steal after showing off her arm during pre-inning warm-ups.

Sirbaugh also was a 2018 team captain and has been arguably Skyline’s most influential leader over the past couple of seasons, a role she said has come naturally to her ever since she began playing organized sports.

“She kind of takes the girls in,” Ritter said. “Her leadership skills are very good. That’s what you want, you know? You do a lot of stuff when you’re coaching and everything but when a kid walks into your program like that, you’re like ‘wow.'”

And Sirbaugh, a second-team selection on the All-Northwestern District (Class 3) and All-Region 3B teams, was the behind-the-scenes element that made all-state pitcher Tamara Grayson tick.

Grayson, who was spectacular during Skyline’s postseason run, tossing 27 consecutive scoreless innings during the playoffs, said midway through the season that her junior catcher and longtime teammate – who began calling Skyline’s pitches after a couple games into the season – had more impact on her pitching prowess than anyone else on the team.

Ritter said something similar last week, calling Sirbaugh a comforting presence for Grayson. He added that Sirbaugh showed a knack for picking out the intricacies of Grayson’s mechanics and could tell if something was off.

“I try to do everything I can to make her look good,” Sirbaugh said of Grayson, who was recently voted to the VHSL Class 3 all-state softball first team. “I know I’m not always gonna get the credit, which is fine by me. It doesn’t matter to me, but as long as I can make her look good and try to help the infield out, that’s all I’m worried about.”

Sirbaugh’s determination to do her part to make her starting pitcher better fell under her broader desire to make sure Skyline delivered on what were lofty self-imposed expectations.

She played her part spectacularly.

“I’ve been playing softball for so many years now, but I just knew this year this was gonna be the year that we were gonna do something big, like go to states, be (one of) the top four teams,” Sirbaugh said. “So I just knew that I had to work extra hard because I wanted to be able to do as much as I could myself to get this team to where they were. They absolutely followed any expectation that anyone had and just had a great season.

“I’m really proud of what this team did,” she added. “All of my success is due to my teammates. They have just always supported me and cheered for me and everything, so I just owe everything to them and I thank them for allowing me to have that great season.”