Former Red Devil makes strong adjustment to college level
06/07/2016 11:33AM ● Published by Richard Gaw
After a stellar four-year career at Avon Grove, Alyssa Herion began her freshman season on the West Chester University softball team in a fashion all of us want our transitions to look: Seamless.
In her first at-bat as a collegian against Virginia State on Feb. 19, she clubbed a three-run home run. Two weeks later, she went three-for-four against Barton to give her a .417 batting average. She was the team's catcher and the only freshman starter on a squad that would eventually record a 48-9 record.
Then came the Florida tour.
Herion's 0-for-17 slump was like a shot in the rib cage, exacerbated by the fact that it was her spring break, and when she wasn't playing doubleheaders and traveling from ball field to ball field, she was seeing all of her friends posting photos taken on beaches and at parties. She was no longer the leader she was at Avon Grove; the only things she could carry with her were her talent and her tenacity, and both had, for the moment, vanished. After a ferocious start, she had hit the wall.
“I reached out to my teammates, especially Micaela McSpadden, and they all assured me that everything was going to be fine,” Herion said.
McSpadden and the rest of Herion's teammates were right. The freshman from Avon Grove finished her rookie season with a .328 batting average, 46 runs batted in, 11 home runs and a whopping .632 slugging average, which earned her a spot on the Division II Conference Commissioners Association (CAA) All-Atlantic Region Squad – along with former Kennett High School hurler Brooke Harner.
To anyone who has followed the Avon Grove softball program over the past several years, it is generally accepted that although the most talented player on the team has been three-time Gatorade Player of the Year Maggie Balint, the person in charge of managing the spine of the successful program was Herion. Throughout her four years behind the plate, she was the source of both assuring calm and fire-in-the-belly passion, regulating the temperature gauge on a squad that was defined by Balint's pitching and for its self-assured swagger.
Making the adjustment to the college level not only required Herion to step up an already talented game, but also keep her on-the-field emotions in check.
“As a freshman, you're at the bottom, and you realize early on that you just need to work your way up,” she said. “I was the only freshman who started, which gave my teammates the confidence in me because they saw what I could do. My freshman season was to show what I can be.
“I knew I had the skill to play at this level, but I needed to change how I approached the game. For the last three years, I basically ran the softball program on the field. For this year, it was very relaxing being able to take the back seat and do what I needed to do.”
“We could tell right away that Alyssa had the defensive skills and the ability to hit the ball well, during the recruiting process,” said West Chester head softball coach Diane Lokey. “Many freshmen have to adjust to the college game, and Alyssa was no different. Offensively, she is a strong hitter, but we really worked on her plate discipline. From the beginning of the season to the end, we saw progress in her ability to be a disciplined hitter, and we hope to see that adjustment continue.”
As the grind of a 57-game season wore on, Herion played through shin splints and a stress fracture, and was often seen on campus wearing a protective boot, which she would remove before games in order to tape up her leg. Then came another adjustment: as the Golden Rams went into conference play, Lokey switched Herion to shortstop.
“I felt more comfortable and confident as a catcher, because as a catcher, you need to adopt that leader-on-the-field perspective,” Herion said. “At shortstop, I didn't have that same mentality, but it enabled me to settle in, relax and play my game.”
For the past few years, Herion considered going away to college – much the way Balint will begin her freshman season at the University of Oregon in the fall as one of the most talented recruits in the nation. Ultimately, she chose to attend college relatively close to home, for reasons that had little to do with athletics.
“I decided I wanted to be a nursing major, and I looked at some schools with good softball programs, and some at those schools said that I couldn't manage a nursing major while playing softball,” she said. “When I met with Coach Lokey, she told me that the team had two nursing majors, so I thought it would be good for me to have someone to look up to and have help from. Most importantly, Coach Lokey told me that academics are what I'm here for.”
Participation in college sports, whether it be at the Division I, II or III level, is a 12-month season, and for Herion, parts of her summer are being spent at the university's athletic complex, lifting and conditioning, a program she describes as “very intense.” There were days last fall when she would be spending endless days at a training facility, asking herself, “Why am I doing this?”
“I hadn't played a single game yet, but I learned that my team's success is what I was playing for, not just mine,” she said. “I began to remember why I was there, for my teammates. I learned that my teammates will become my best friends after college. It becomes a strong bond. You live with them, you travel with them, and you have the same stress as them. I began to realize that what I was doing here had little to do with me.”
On May 6, West Chester ended its 48-win season in Charleston, W. Va., with a 5-2 loss against Kutztown in the NCAA tournament. The team will begin the 2017 season next winter losing only two players to graduation. One of those players is third baseman Laura Altenburger, who was considered the team leader, which could possibly open the door for Herion to assume a leadership role.
“Alyssa is a strong leader on the field,” Lokey said. “From my experience, many freshmen really reflect and grow over the summer after their freshman year, so we look forward to Alyssa’s on- and off-field leadership skills to develop. Alyssa has the ability to do some amazing things at West Chester.”
As Herion came to the plate during home games this past season, the strains of SD's “Confident” played on the public address system. Among the song's lyrics are these: "I think I'm just too confident, confident."
The walk-up song – one she selected -- serves two purposes for Herion. It signifies that she is a part of a successful program, one that she will help lead in the future, and it shows that the confident swagger that helped define her high school carer is still alive, manifesting itself in another part of Chester County.
“I want to be at the caliber Coach Lokey is expecting of me,” Herion said. “She expects us to get better every year. Last year, I was the new kid. I'm not the new kid any more.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org