USA TODAY High School Sports is featuring the 12 athletes in the running for the Gatorade National Athlete of the Year, which will be announced July 16 in Los Angeles. Today's spotlight: Carley Hoover (softball).
At age 10, Carley Hoover’s father sat her down for a hard lesson. Although she was the star noseguard of the Central Tigers, the 10-and-under state champions of South Carolina, her parents didn’t see much future for her in football.
“When she was playing football she was bigger and equally strong and fast as most of the other players,” Dave Hoover recalled. “She did well, but she thought she was going to play in high school, and college, and we just tried to explain to her that the boys are going to catch up with you pretty soon and pass you. There’s not a big future for women playing college and professional football.”
Carley didn’t need long to find a new sport: She walked off the gridiron and onto the diamond, where she soon victimized opposing batters and pitchers with a defensive lineman’s ferocity.
Dave and Jolene (currently the head volleyball coach at Clemson) Hoover steered their talented daughter toward softball and by high school she emerged as a pitching phenom. Following all-state selections as a freshman and sophomore, Hoover capped off a remarkable junior year (16-4, 0.50 ERA, 296 strikeouts) by winning South Carolina’s Gatorade Softball Player of the Year award.
Somehow she shattered several of those numbers the next season. The 6-foot-2 right-hander duplicated her 16-4 record, but posted a 0.15 ERA, while striking out 338 batters. Hoover’s prodigious velocity — she’s been clocked at 73 mph — is often the explanation for her success, but speed is only part of her mastery.
“I think a lot of people just look at me as a speed pitcher and ‘Wow, she throws hard,’ but at the same time I’m really proud of how my spin has progressed and come along,” said Hoover, who also earned a 3.84 GPA and served as her senior class president at D.W. Daniel High School in Central, S.C. “There are other girls out there that can throw hard, but that definitely is the key factor that helped me to get this far.”
MORE WITH GATORADE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR FINALISTS:
Max Browne (football)
Lauren Carlini (volleyball)
Sarah Baxter (girls cross country)
Andrew Wiggins (boys basketball)
Mercedes Russell (girls basketball)
But perhaps the most mind-boggling part about Hoover is that her dominance on the mound mirrors a dominance at the plate. Despite being walked a state-record 59 times as a junior, Hoover hit .475 with seven home runs and 34 runs scored. The next year — in which she walked another 55 times — Hoover hit .500, blasting four home runs with 16 extra-base hits and 45 runs scored.
“One of my biggest fears was she’s going to kill somebody,” Hoover’s high school coach, Kate Floyd, said. “I would always tell the [opposing] third baseman ‘You might want to step back. She’s not bunting.’ Her power and presence at the plate was just as it was on the mound.”
This spring, the Lions rode their dual-threat to the Class 3A state finals, where in consecutive starts Hoover threw a pair of complete-game shutouts and combined for 33 strikeouts. Fittingly, she tossed a no-hitter in the series-clinching victory over Darlington.
“It was really the most memorable game I think I’ll ever play in, the most memorable season,” Hoover said. “Just how we came together as a team and how we grew to love each other and became better teammates throughout the season.”
This fall, Hoover will have a whole new set of teammates to bond with: She has accepted a softball scholarship to Stanford. And while she remains extremely confident in her ability to retire opposing batters, Hoover envisions her hitting as the biggest hurdle.
“My pitching, I have pretty good control right now,” she said. “But definitely hitting is going to be a challenge to break the lineup. [Stanford] Coach Rittman says that if I’m one of the top nine I’m going to bat, but I hope I can be seen as a hitter at the college level because a lot of times in high school I wasn’t seen as a hitter.”
Only to someone who averaged nearly 2.5 strikeouts per inning and allowed only three earned runs in 138 innings last season could a .500 hitter be seen as “just a pitcher.”
Here is more of Adam Lazarus' conversation with Carley Hoover:
Your skills as a pitcher have earned you the most attention but you’ve posted some tremendous numbers as a hitter. How hard is it to stay sharp at both aspects?
Hoover: I definitely focus on my pitching game a lot more than my hitting game. Pitching always came first. I didn’t put in nearly enough time hitting as I should have to be honest but … I do value my hitting game just as much as my pitching game and I think a lot of people overlook that and just see me as a pitcher. So it is nice to be respected at the box sometimes.
Your statistics at the plate are even more amazing considering how often you were walked, a national high school record 157 times during your four years at Daniel. How frustrating was that for you to not be able to swing the bat?
Hoover: It was frustrating at times, especially times when my team needed me to come through for them, but at the same time I understand that I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. So if I was going to get on base, steal. I was going to do the best at that, maybe steal a couple bases. Honestly, my team came through for me every time. The only reason anyone would walk me is because they think the person next to me couldn’t hit well. It’s funny because Jenna Carnes batted after me on the team and she led our team in home runs. She is a great hitter and I don’t see why anyone would want to pitch to her either. So my team came through for me on that aspect.
You’ve learned from several prominent softball tutors during your career, including former NFL star and softball state championship coach Kevin Fagan, Denny Tincher (father of All-American pitching star Angela Tincher), and U.S. Olympian Michelle Smith. What influence have they had on you?
Hoover: I’ve been blessed with opportunities to learn from some of the greatest names in softball and the greatest upcoming names as well. Obviously whatever they’re teaching is working because I’m at Stanford University right now, my dream school. Coach Fagan taught me a lot. I went in to my first summer ball season with him knowing how to throw hard and knowing that I knew how to pitch good and that’s pretty much it. I came out of that first summer ball season knowing the game of softball and I cannot believe how much he taught me about softball. He’s just an incredible mind in softball. Same with Denny Tincher … and I learned my change-up from Michelle Smith. She actually announced some of my mom’s volleyball games and that’s how I met her. And I got the opportunity to pitch with her, spend some time with her, go to lunch with her a couple times and she taught me a change-up. She’s pretty incredible too. I asked her a lot about her pro seasons, she’s a really interesting woman.
You were a member of the North Florida Gold Team that won the ASA (Amateur Softball Association of America) 18-and-under championship in 2011. What did that experience do for developing your career?
Hoover: Each and every player on that team was a big-time player. I learned so much just being able to play with them, practice with them, learn from them, the coaching staff, just to be able to watch them play the game, to be on the same field as them. I was really lucky, there were some pretty incredible players. It’s not every day you get to play on the same field as a group of girls like that and against even better players. We were playing the best teams in the country. So I learned just as much from my opponents as I did from my teammates. It was probably my first big stage in softball.
You said that it was a very hard decision but you turned down a spot on the U.S. Junior team to start your classes at Stanford. Do you have hopes of playing for Team USA someday?
Hoover: That would mean the world to me to be able to play on Team USA. I’ve actually played with a couple USA programs in volleyball when I was younger … I was so excited, that’s something you work for forever, and to get told that I can’t play was kind of heartbreaking. But at the same time I’m at one of the most beautiful campuses in the world and learning from the best professors in the world.
Which gives you a bigger thrill: hitting a home run or striking out the side?
Hoover: I like striking people out.