It begins with a softball tee and a conversation.
Haley Hawk steps into a batting cage with Ashlye Hylton Washington, her hitting instructor, one early afternoon at The Pitchers Mound (TPM), a fastpitch softball instruction facility in Norcross. The Pinecrest Academy rising junior stands next to the tee, hoists her bat above her right shoulder and gets in her batting stance. Washington places a softball on the tee. Hawk swings.
Five days have passed since Hawk helped Team Georgia 16U fight its way out of the loser’s bracket to qualify for the 2015 ASA National Championships in late August. In a few days, Hawk and her travel team will compete in another weekend tournament in hopes of qualifying for the PGF National Championship in Huntington Beach, Calif. But for now, Hawk becomes a softball-swinging automaton as she talks with Washington about her swing.
Once a week, Hawk makes the hour-long drive from north Cumming to TPM for a 45-minute session, a commitment she’s accustomed to by now. Hawk started playing softball when she was 8 years old, and one of her parents’ immediate questions was, “Do you want to take hitting lessons?”
“I wanted to do them,” Hawk said. “I wanted to become a better player and just raise my game above everybody else.”
The way to becoming that player, to developing into the college-caliber third baseman and outfielder she’s hoped to be since the seventh grade, has been with the usual formula in this era of high school softball: playing on elite travel teams, participating in weekend college showcase camps and augmenting it all with private instruction.
Washington removes the tee and starts to give soft-toss to Hawk. With almost every ping of the bat, Hawk gets some kind of feedback about her swing.
“We’re not staying in the elbows there.”
“Rotate to get there.”
“You’re pushing your hands way ahead.”
“That’s what we want, consistency.”
These are not the first swings Hawk has taken this week. Hawk’s Team Georgia 16U team practices on the weekends – five hours on Saturday, another five hours on Sunday – so it’s up to her to get in work during the week. She tries to hit at least 200 softballs every day. Sometimes she uses a tee or recruits her younger brother to give her soft-toss in the front yard. When it rains, she finds a place indoors.
“It’s a lot of time,” Hawk said.
Hawk pauses as Washington moves behind a pitching screen. She tells Hawk to aim for the opposite field, to let the ball get deeper in her stance, to let her elbow shift over and to rotate her shoulders and to keep her hands and hips back.
“Stop right there,” Washington says, and she makes Hawk practice her swing in the hopes that doing so will train her muscles to remember what to do with a pitch on the outside corner of the plate.
“You can hit on your own,” Hawk said, “but it’s all about muscle memory, so if you’re hitting on your own and you’re creating bad muscle memory it does nothing. So with instructors you go and you hit for 30 minutes getting your muscles to do the right thing.”
Near the end of Hawk’s session, it seems her muscle are remembering better.
“Better,” Washington says.
“Better,” Washington says. “Turn in facing the plate.”
“Better!” Washington says.
“Better!” Washington says. “Don’t stop your rotation.”
At swing No. 154, Washington brings the lesson to a close. She tells Hawk to practice on her form at the point of contact, to repeat the rotation of her hips and shoulders and arms that got her to push the ball to the opposite field.
Hawk could’ve been anywhere on this summer afternoon, but she chose to be here, picking up hundreds of softballs after 45 minutes of swinging a bat an hour away from home.
“Sometimes there are things you’d rather do,” Hawk said, “but you know you have to put in work to get better.”