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High school softball MVPs understood the importance of mental toughness

Most talented athletes learn that hard work will only enhance their natural abilities. But what not all athletes understand is just how important mental toughness is when it comes to succeeding in a pressure-filled, competitive environment.

The young women who’ve earned the 2015 Deseret News Most Valuable Player awards understand the power of an athlete’s mind. They proved, in many ways, that grit and a positive attitude can elevate a player, a team, a program.

5A MVP: Sydney White, Lehi

Twice this season, the Lehi softball team lost to Region 4 champion Herriman.

“They beat us twice, killed us — 12-1 and 9-1,” said Lehi head coach Tim Kennedy. “And then we had to double them up in the state championship game.” That is, Lehi had to beat the team that had dominated them during region play twice to earn the 5A state championship. Kennedy isn’t certain it was one thing that made a difference, but he knows the intensity and focus of pitcher Sydney White were unmatched in those final two games of the season.

“I think some of it was the experience of being there last year,” Kennedy said of the Pioneers' victory last year, in which White also pitched the team to the title. “The girls were just ready to go. We had great defense and timely hitting.” White pitched 52 of the 56 innings Lehi played in the 5A tournament.

“She’s also a really good infielder, a really good shortstop, and a lot of games, she helped us more there than on the mound,” Kennedy said of the junior.

While the Pioneers don’t have designated captains, White became a leader because of what she did on the field.

“She’s a special player,” Kennedy said. “She’s super fun to watch because she just knows how to play the game. She has the green light to do what she does best…to just go play her game. …She’s once in a decade type of player, a phenomenal athlete.” Kennedy said as good as White was last season, it’s not just a theory that she was better in her junior season.

“She improved in every category but home runs,” he said, pointing out White had seven home runs as a sophomore. She finished the year with 15 doubles, four triples, six home runs, 30 RBIs, and as the leadoff batter, she scored 52 runs. She earned a .431 batting average, a .521 on-base percentage and a .784 slugging percentage. She was also a starter on Lehi’s second-place volleyball team this season. The honor student has a relentless work ethic and Kennedy said he often sees her working with her dad on days off.

“She’ll be out there and her dad’s pitching to her,” he said. “She just works hard and it’s paid off.”

4A MVP: Cambrie Hazel, Spanish Fork

Early this season, sophomore pitcher Cambrie Hazel was struggling so Spanish Fork head coach Don Andrews called time out and walked toward the circle where the team’s infield gathered around Hazel.

“She grabbed (teammate Kaylee) Bott and said, ‘Don’t let him take me out’,” Andrews recalled, laughing. “That’s when I knew she was maturing. …The mental part of her game was very, very big.”

To lead a team’s defense, a pitcher has to be able to perform under pressure. As a freshman, Hazel had moments when she let the situation get the best of her. This season, Hazel improved her mental game so much that Andrews said he’s not sure the talented Dons would have won the 4A state title without her in the circle.

“I hate to say no, but I’m going to,” Andrews said. “I don’t think we do it without her.”

Hazel’s talent and improved mental game made her a star in one of the best defenses in the state. Andrews said her self-confidence was contagious.

“The others really had confidence in her,” he said. “She struck out 17 batters against Clearfield (in the second round of the 4A playoffs). The other players only made four outs so they told her, ‘Hey, thanks for letting us play.’ That gives you an idea of what they thought of her.”

Hazel is a gifted athlete playing varsity volleyball and basketball.

“She’s a pretty darn good basketball player, so the time she has to pitch isn’t much,” he said. “After basketball finished, she buckled down and got serious.”

In addition to leading her team to both a region and state title, Hazel finished the season with a 16-3 record. She earned 157 strikeouts in 126 innings and boasted a .78 ERA.

“She’s a really good pitcher with a rise ball and a curveball,” he said.

Andrews said he was so accustomed to her consistent excellence that when she wasn’t dominating, he thought she might be “struggling.”

“I got spoiled with her,” he said. “When she didn’t pitch her best, she still didn’t give up much. She gave up three runs in the five games of the state tournament — and one of those was my fault. That’s a pretty good run.”

3A MVP: Autumn Dzierzon, Grantsville

The Grantsville softball coaches tried to persuade their players to take the school’s weightlifting class because it would enhance their performance on the field.

“But a lot of times girls are self-conscious to be around the boys in the weight room,” said Grantsville head coach Heidi Taylor. “But Autumn (Dzierzon) didn’t care, and the boys were great, they took her in, and once the girls saw she could do it, they decided they could do it too.”

The result was a stronger, quicker squad, and it also solidified Dzierzon’s place as a leader on the team.

“Autumn is always someone, from the beginning, who comes to practice and is willing to work her very hardest,” Taylor said.

Whether it’s drills or conditioning, she sees everything as a competition to be her best self.

“It’s a very positive competition,” Taylor said. “She’s always doing her best. She kept such a great attitude.” When Dzierzon was a freshman, there was someone she was too hard on — herself.

“She just beat herself up over any mistake,” Taylor said. “So I told her, ‘There is only one person who gets to be mad at you and it’s me. If you mess up, go on and be a kid. It will be over in two seconds.’”

From that moment on, Dzierzon has focused on what’s ahead and not what’s behind.

“She didn’t always have her best game, but she’s an awesome leader,” Taylor said. “She’s actually the person I wish all my kids could be exactly like — worth ethic, weight room, classroom ethic, a leader, positive and hard working. I’ve literally never had someone quite as talented and dedicated to everything the way Autumn is.”

Hardly a game went by when the plate umpire didn’t compliment the senior catcher on her technique and attitude. She finished the season with a .523 batting average, a .564 on-base percentage and a .994 defensive fielding percentage. She led the Cowboys to a Region 11 title with just a single loss.

“I’ve been blessed with a lot of good catchers and Autumn is no different,” Taylor said. “She has the right body size and she’s so strong. The blocking part, she is among the best I’ve ever had at blocking (pitches) the way she does. I just enjoy watching her catch.”

2A MVP: Hannah Peterson, South Summit

When South Summit prepared to play for the 2A state softball title it seemed like the Region 16 champions would have to do a bit of windmill tilting.

After all, it was San Juan that sent the Wildcats into the one-loss bracket in the third round of tournament play. That meant that on championship Monday, not only did the Rams have to face a team that had already beaten them, but they also had to do it twice.

“We said we were going to win this thing,” said South Summit head coach Cody Bowen of the mindset after the Wildcats' loss to the Broncos. “We never said how we were going to do this.”

The players rallied with inspirational quotes and texts, and at the center of the effort to bounce back was sophomore pitcher Hannah Peterson.

In the loss to San Juan, Peterson didn't pitch, but was 0 for 4 at the plate and the team gave up three home runs — two of those to San Juan pitcher Tatiana Su’e Su’e.

When the two teams clashed again, the Broncos faced a more determined offense and a much tougher Peterson.

“She just really emerged as one of the great team leaders,” Bowen said.

Peterson finished the tournament 16 of 26 at the plate with 10 singles, two doubles, four home runs, 15 RBIs and eight stolen bases.

In the first of two championship games, Peterson gave up another home run to Su’e Su’e in her first at-bat. But this time, she turned her frustration to resolve and returned the favor with a home run of her own. Bowen made the choice to walk Su’e Su’e the rest of the tournament, but Peterson didn’t seem worried about that as she led the team’s prolific offense in back-to-back victories of 12-5 and 6-1.

Bowen said the moment that showed just how determined Peterson was came during the second game when a line drive hit her in the finger of her pitching hand.

“I was certainly worried,” Bowen said. “She was just throwing so well. A day or two later that finger looked like it had been jammed, swollen and bruised, but that’s the difference last year to this year. Things that bothered her last year, she just fought through them. … She was just so much better mentally, more confident, more relaxed.”

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