COLUMBUS — The celebration doesn’t seem to match the moment. Abby Herbst coaxes a sharp grounder to first base, her Trojans teammate steps on the bag, and Center Grove (Greenwood, Indiana) is heading to semistate for the third straight season. And Herbst has just thrown her third — count them, one, two, three — no-hitter of the season.
Not a single Columbus North batter hit the ball out of the infield.
Herbst walks off the mound and is congratulated by her teammates, and there are hugs all around, but there’s a feeling that this type of performance has become the expectation. And because this is Herbst, the pitcher with a career 0.76 ERA, maybe it is. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate it.
Herbst has always been good at softball, maybe even great. She’s been playing softball since she was seven years old, has been on a national travel team since she was in eighth grade, won a national title when she was 12, won another a few years later. The question has never been is she good. It’s how good can she be. And she keeps raising her own bar.
Her dad, Bob, says she was a “late bloomer” when it came to pitching. It wasn’t until around eighth grade that she came into her own in the circle. During her freshman season, she had a 1.22 ERA. But the moment she really began to believe in herself might have come at the end of her freshman season, when she pitched an eight-inning shutout in her first-ever sectional game, hitting a walk-off home run against a future Division I pitcher.
She was 16-1 in her sophomore year with a 1.02 ERA. Last season, she was 20-1 with a 0.56 ERA and 173 strikeouts. Coming into every season, she sets her own goals. Each year, they’re more ludicrous than before. This season, what did she set out to do?
She wants to be Indiana Miss Softball. She wants to be Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year. But none of that will matter if the team doesn’t win. She wants a state title.
“Be the player my team needed,” she said of her goal coming into the season. “To keep it scoreless and be the hitter my team needed. Last year I wasn’t able to do that for them.”
To date, she’s 18-3 with a 0.44 ERA. She’s tossed eight shutouts, struck out 187 and walked only 15. At the plate, she’s batting .541 with 37 RBIs. And yet, she’s never content.
“My toughest critic is definitely myself,” the Wisconsin commit said. “I’m insanely hard on myself. But I think that’s why I’m so successful. I have really high expectations.”
But more on the pitching: Since a 5-2 loss to New Palestine on April 24, she’s pitched 86 2/3 innings. In that span, she’s given up one earned run, struck out 120, given up 36 hits and walked seven. That’s a .0016 ERA (!!) holding opponents to a .108 average.
Ask her catcher, Lexi Fair, what it’s like to be behind the plate when Herbst is on the mound, and Fair giggles.
“It’s pretty easy,” she said. “She knows where to put her pitches and she can place them well. It’s just my job to catch, frame and make her look good.”
First-year Center Grove coach Alyssa Coleman marvels at what she sees on a daily basis. In a five-minute conversation, she uses the word “special” three times.
“It’s been a joy to watch her increase her level of play and dare people to try and keep up. She’s special,” Coleman said. “When you have a pitcher that utilizes her defense and gets strikeouts in big moments, that’s next-level. She’s special beyond words.”
And the no-hitter to send the Trojans to semistate wasn’t even Herbst’s best performance of the week.
Center Grove’s sectional title game against Franklin last week was the team’s third game in four days, and the first two were far from easy — a 2-0 win over Franklin Central in the sectional opener followed by a 6-4 win over Martinsville in the semifinal.
The team was tired, the team was pressing, and the team wasn’t scoring. The game was scoreless until the last of the 11th, when Fair won the title with a home run.
Herbst pitched from start to finish — her final line: 11 innings, six hits, no walks, 17 strikeouts.
So when she says her third no-hitter of the season was one of her “better performances,” and Coleman says it was “up there,” they’re not just being humble. That’s just how good she’s been.
Herbst’s teammates say she’s “goofy” and “bubbly” when she’s not playing, but she’s all business between the lines. So forgive her if she hasn’t had time to reflect on what she’s done in the past month, or this season, or the past four years. She still has three more games to win. So we’ll do some reflection for her and say this: When her high school career ends, it will bring a conclusion to one of the most dominant four-year runs Indiana high school softball has seen in years.
“I haven’t even had time to think about the fact that I’m graduating high school next week,” she said. “I’m not thinking about the past. I’m focusing on the future.”