THE GRIND is a weekly series presented by Scott's Auto Center in Cumming.
NORCROSS – Walk into Chip Smith Performance Systems and pass the moms in the gym surrounded by framed jerseys of NFL players (Champ Bailey? Garrison Hearst!? BRIAN URLACHER?!) Walk through a door into a massive warehouse area covered with artificial turf, netted batting cages and high school athletes sweating toward the goal of a college scholarship.
Marissa Guimbarda sets up in one of the empty batting cages with nothing but her glove and a softball. Her father, Carlos, sits on a bucket at the end of the cage with a catcher’s mitt. Lacey Ingram, a pitching instructor with The Pitchers Mound, stands behind Guimbarda with an inspector’s glare.
And so Guimbarda begins to throw, bullets that hit her dad’s mitt and echo in the room.
"Lift up," Ingram says. "Up!"
"Lift!" Ingram says. "Yes! Look at the difference."
"Your hips are closing too soon," Ingram says. "Do you understand what I’m saying?"
"Lift. Up, up, up!" Ingram says. "Good adjustment."
"Oh, come on," Ingram says. "I’m being nice today!"
Guimbarda is spending this summer afternoon in a sweltering warehouse with other high school athletes to fine-tune her skills. She’s chasing the centimeters in her mechanics that can add more zip to her fastball. She’s searching for the strategic advantage against slap hitters who can cover the outside corner of the plate. Another two years of this and she’ll probably be a coveted prospect by college programs.
Guimbarda was a blank slate when she started working with Ingram and The Pitchers Mound three years ago. Her mechanics were raw and her velocity stuck at 52 miles per hour – fast enough to get high school hitters out but not fast enough for college coaches. Now, Guimbarda’s mechanics are more refined and her fastball is up to 60-62 MPH.
That’s great news for Lambert. The rising sophomore is stepping in as the starting pitcher this season to replace Kassie Howard and all her 23 wins, 138 2/3 innings and school-record 186 strikeouts that helped the Lady Longhorns win the Region 6-AAAAAA championship and reach the second round of the state tournament.
"There’s definitely a little pressure," Guimbarda says.
Guimbarda won’t be unprepared. She’s following the protocol for high school softball players with ambitions of reaching the college ranks.
She plays for Team Georgia during the travel season that is critical to college exposure. Her summer months are booked with showcase events and tournaments that put her in front of countless colleges.
She spends February at the High Intensity Training Center in Cumming to work on speed and agility and works with Ingram at The Pitchers Mound all year except for one week during Thanksgiving and two weeks during Christmas. During the high school season, Guimbarda will leave Lambert practice for pitching lessons at 7 p.m.
"All hard work pays off in the end," Guimbarda says. "If I do all the hard work, it shows on the field. It’s a good feeling."
This lesson is Guimbarda’s first in six weeks. A month ago, she bruised a bone in her shoulder diving for a foul ball that left her with an inflamed labrum. Ingram has Guimbarda move on from throwing fastballs to her dropball, and the rust starts to show.
So Ingram stops Guimbarda and walks to the end of the batting cage. She stretches a white string between two sawed off plastic batting tees and places it three feet in front of home plate, giving Guimbarda a visual line for where her dropball should start its trajectory down.
Guimbarda starts throwing again. Some drop too soon. Some drop too late. Guimbarda breaks the gaze of her dad’s mitt just once toward the end of her session. As she winds up, her eyes glance at a television mounted on the wall. The World Cup game between the Germany and the United States is on. Then she unleashes a perfect dropball that skims the top of the string and falls into her dad’s glove.
"That’s a wrap," Ingram says.
"Thank God she only gave my one bruise today," Carlos says.
The lesson is over, and it’s only 4 p.m., a normal summer evening just getting started. Often times, she gets texts from friends asking to hang out.
"It’s always the same response: ‘I have softball,’" Marissa says.
As the Guimbardas leave, passing the high school athletes and moms and framed NFL jerseys on the wall, she checks her phone.
No matter what messages she has, Guimbarda already knows her response. She gets in a white convertible Mustang with her dad and heads off to Team Georgia practice.
"I never have thoughts of quitting," Marissa says. "You just do what you love."