Leaders are often defined not only by their own talent but by their ability to bring out the best in those around them.
The 2013 Deseret News softball MVPs weren’t just some of the state's most skilled athletes. They all led their teams to success by inspiring those around them to find the best in themselves.
Whether it was offering encouraging words, strategic tips, a calming influence or acting as an example of hard work and dedication, Copper Hills' Ashley Clayson, Salem Hills' Kirtlyn Bohling, Stansbury's Jocelyn Kaufman and Enterprise's Dakota Robinson did whatever was necessary for their teams to succeed.
As a result, the two catchers and two pitchers have been named this year's MVPs of their respective classifications.
Copper Hills head coach Jentry Jo Johnson could see Clayson was disappointed with the coach’s decision to move her from shortstop to catcher.
“It pained me to move my all-star, all-state shortstop, where many balls are hit, to catcher,” said Johnson. “But the catcher touches every single ball, and we were struggling a little so I went with my gut. ... We just didn’t have that direction on the field. I put Ashley in that first game and it was like an aha moment. The field was being directed; there was communication; there was a voice present out there and it was undeniable.”
The team was playing in a preseason tournament in St. George when Johnson made the switch. While Clayson never complained, Johnson could see the disappointment on the senior’s face.
“I approached her, rather than let it fester, and said, ‘I know you’re not very happy about this. I can tell by the look on your face. But I need to see if this is going to be best for the team.’ And she said, ‘I know coach, and at least I’m playing.’”
Not only did Clayson’s demeanor change, but she embraced the challenge so completely, Johnson was blown away.
“She’s got one of the strongest arms I’ve ever seen on a softball player,” said Johnson. “You don’t see her tenacity as much behind the plate, but she is just very, very athletic.” Clayson is also a talented hitter, and that’s often where her determination shines.
“In the batter’s box, she carries such a presence with her that, honestly, I would hate to face as a pitcher,” said Johnson, a former pitcher who played at Hillcrest and Southern Utah University. She recalled an at-bat against one of the state’s best pitchers, Bingham’s Paige Reimann, in which Clayson took 21 pitches before earning a walk.
“That kind of batter can really wear you down and just defeat a pitcher,” she said. “She just carries the aspect of a great athlete.”
Clayson will play for SUU, and she will wear No. 11, the number Johnson wore when she played for the T-birds. She finished the season with a .462 batting average and a .670 slugging percentage. She earned 33 RBIs and 41 hits, including three home runs.
Clayson’s leadership was especially critical in the second half of the season when sophomore pitcher Payten Davies emerged as the team’s go-to pitcher. Johnson said that sometimes before she could even ask for a timeout, Clayson was conferring with her pitcher and teammates.
“She was already on it, prepping them, giving them confidence,” said Johnson. “She is just the kind of leader that all of my girls look to.”
The final inning of the state tournament couldn’t have been more pressure-packed for a young Salem Hills squad.
But with Bohling in the circle, the group overcame the odds — and the state’s No. 1 team, Box Elder — to win the Skyhawks' first softball title.
“Her leadership was extremely beneficial,” said Salem Hills head coach Renae Kinghorn. “She obviously was such a solid force of composure on the mound and really, really held it together in tough situations.”
At no time was her grit more evident than in the 4A state championship game. Salem Hills was clinging to a one-run lead when the Bees’ Sadie Blacker hit a single to get on base. Kinghorn made the decision to intentionally walk Molly Horne, the team’s catcher, which put the winning run on first base for Box Elder with just one out.
Bohling responded by getting the next two batters, both tremendous hitters, to fly out and end the game in the Skyhawks' favor.
While she admitted afterward to feeling a little “stressed,” the junior never let it show during the game.
“It’s easy to be intimidated and show your youth in those situations,” said Kinghorn. “Kirtlyn is not intimidated by anything really. She did such a good job of not letting things get to her, and our team just followed suit. She didn’t really buckle under anything.”
The coach said she’s always seen Bohling as a leader, but her perception was confirmed when the team voted her a captain.
“Sometimes coaches see things differently than their peers,” she said. “She was just a leader in every way.”
Bohling did surprise her coaches with one aspect of her game.
“We knew she was going to be a good pitcher,” said Kinghorn. “We knew she’d keep us in every single game. But I didn’t know how strong her bat would be. I knew she was a good hitter, but I didn’t know she would be so clutch for us.”
Kinghorn describes Bohling “as goofy and silly as any of them,” adding that she is as much a cheerleader for her teammates as she is a star.
“She really tries hard to support everybody,” she said. “She cheers for everybody. She’s the type of player that coaches honestly dream about having.”
Kaufman’s most valuable contribution to helping the Stansbury softball team win the school’s first title in any sport was how she helped the team’s sophomore pitcher develop this season.
“She is definitely our best leader on our team,” said Stansbury head softball coach Bridget Clinton. “It’s just such an important position, the catcher. They definitely make your whole team better. They make your pitchers better; they make your fielders better.”
Kaufman has a long list of great attributes, but it’s how she helped sophomore Kimbri Herring develop as a pitcher that was key to the team’s title win over perennial power Spanish Fork.
“Without her in that position, it would have been very tough to do as well as we did,” Clinton said. “One of the biggest things was that she helped Kimbri to develop. For a catcher to work with a sophomore, she did an awesome job.”
From pitch calling to calming the nerves of her young pitcher, Kaufman did it all.
“She’s very loud — a typical catcher,” Clinton said of the senior’s leadership style. “She has a great arm. I don’t think anybody stole a base on her all season. She threw everybody out. She gets rid of the ball really, really quickly.”
Offensively, she was just as helpful with consistent, reliable performances.
“She’s the third-leading hitter on our team,” Clinton said.
In addition to not allowing a single steal this season, she earned a .430 batting average, 11 doubles and 37 RBIs.
“She’s really funny, the class clown,” said Clinton. “She’s the leader on the team. She’s the type of player who is really competitive, and she just goes out and does what she has to do for the team to be better.”
Kaufman was the calming — and inspiring — force for her team despite having a sore back the entire season.
“We were hoping she was just going to be able to keep playing,” said Clinton of fears that Kaufman might not be able to play the physically demanding position. “But she’s just tough.”
Enterprise head coach Duane Wallin scheduled the toughest teams he could find, including top-ranked 3A, 4A and 5A teams, hoping to prepare his team for the challenges of playoff softball.
And while facing schools that are five or six times bigger might intimidate some players, it invigorated Robinson, his junior pitcher.
“When we’d play those tough teams, it seemed she’d rise up and play even tougher,” said Walling of schools like Spanish Fork, Snow Canyon and Lehi. “These were good, solid teams, and she pitched really well against all of them.”
Robinson had a few starts as a freshman, and she became the Wolves’ primary pitcher as a sophomore. She helped the team to a third-place finish last year, and that just fueled her offseason efforts heading into this year.
“She played ball all summer, and she just got more confidence,” Wallin said. “She has a really good presence on the mound. She doesn’t let things bother her.”
When the situation becomes tense, Robinson becomes calmer, smarter.
“She can handle the pressure,” he said. “She is just tough and doesn’t have lapses as far as mental or emotional. And that helps the whole team having that kind of an attitude.”
Her natural athletic ability is simply enhanced by her dogged work ethic. She helped the team to this year’s championship game where the Wolves lost to San Juan in a 6-5 thriller.
“I’ve had three good pitchers stacked up the last 10 years,” he said of the program that’s become one of the state’s best. “I don’t know who is going to take her place. I have four or five good freshman pitchers, but none are at the level she is. I’m sure we would have struggled without her.”
Robinson is a dedicated student who also plays volleyball and basketball.
“Her first love is softball,” said Wallin. “She is an all-around player. If she wasn’t pitching, she’d be my shortstop. If I needed an outfielder, she’d be a great one. She’s just an all-around great player who really knows and understands the game. She’s really amazing.”