It's easy to feel good about team concepts when one also gets to pursue individual desires. The real team player is able to put the needs and goals of the group ahead of personal accolades or aspirations.
This year’s MVPs — three pitchers and an infielder — led their teams to state championship games with more than skill and hard work. They were, at every turn, committed to the concept of teamwork, even when it meant sacrificing their own desires.
5A MVP: Huntyr Ava, West
It has to be a pretty special sophomore to provide the kind of leadership offered by West infielder Huntyr Ava.
“She’s one of our captains, which is very unusual,” West High head coach Keith Lopati said. “But she’s got pretty much the whole package in regards to doing things in the future in softball.”
Ava played shortstop for the Panthers last year, but moved to first base this season because it’s what the team needed. It may also be the spot Ava plays in college, Lopati said.
“She brings a passion and a love for softball,” Lopati said. “Her power is incredible, and she is pretty flexible. She can play almost any position on the field. We even used her in center field because we didn’t have much depth in the outfield.”
While her stats might indicate a polished player, Lopati said she is constantly seeking more knowledge.
“She is very willing to learn,” he said. “She’s the complete competitor.”
Ava earned a .594 batting average. In 96 at-bats, she earned 57 hits with 66 RBIs. She smacked 13 doubles and 21 home runs.
Some of her greatest strides came in her hitting game.
“She was very disciplined at the plate,” Lopati said. “Last year she just wanted to hit everything, crush everything and see how far it would go. She’s grown up in that regard.”
In addition to being a vocal leader, Ava keeps the atmosphere fun.
“She’s the one who lightens everybody’s emotions before the game,” he said. “She is the clown. She’s the one who brings the fun.”
But she has a competitive fire that causes her to constantly seek improvement. In the first 5A title game, the Panthers lost to Bingham and Ava struggled.
“She had a terrible game,” Lopati said. “Afterward, she was crying her eyes out, and then she came to me and apologized and said, coach, ‘I got it.’ She regained her composure, and she just worked through it. That’s the way she is; she expects a lot of herself and she finds a way to get a better performance next time. That’s what sets her apart from a lot of players her age.”
4A MVP: Summer Stensgard, Uintah
Despite being one of the most accomplished and talented players on the Uintah softball team, senior pitcher Summer Stensgard practiced like she was desperate to earn a spot on the field.
“She gets to practice 45 minutes before everyone else, does her pitching workout,” said Uintah head coach Maddy Schulz. “And then when the rest of the team comes, she warms up with them and practices so hard, even though she’s already spent 45 minutes pitching. She’s just a great team leader.”
Stensgard offered one of her grittiest performances in the state title game against region rival Spanish Fork. She hit three home runs against the Dons — a team they hadn’t beaten this season — and then led the Ute defense to a win, forcing a second title game.
Even when the Dons seemed to be hitting everything Stensgard threw, she went to the bench with a standing ovation from fans but remained in the lineup hoping to help her team with her bat.
“From the beginning of the season to where she ended, I’ve seen huge growth. She’s learned new pitches in one season. I feel like she’s more consistent than she’s been in the past, and one thing that was really critical was that in the past, when she struggled in one aspect of the game, she seemed to struggle in the other aspects. But this year, especially at the state tournament, if she wasn’t hitting well, she’d turn around and pitch amazing. If she had a bad inning on the mound, which was rare, she’d turn around and hit a home run. She was consistent and a leader on both sides.”
Stensgard, who will play at Salt Lake Community College next year, had a .538 batting average, earning 63 hits in 117 at-bats. She also collected 50 RBIs, 16 doubles, four triples and 18 home runs.
“She’s a very confident girl,” Schulz said. “She’s an honor student, a hard worker, but she comes off with a funny, quirky personality.”
In fact, as the team prepared for games, she kept her teammates loose with her antics.
“Summer is so fun and loud and goofy,” Schulz said. “She is always dancing or wearing funny outfits on the bus, anything to get the girls to relax and have fun. She’s just there to play ball and have fun.”
3A MVP: Alese Casper, Grantsville
Alese Casper’s athletic talent is so diverse that Grantsville head coach Heidi Taylor was able to use her wherever the team needed.
“She is so versatile,” Taylor said of Casper, who ended up pitching the Cowboys to their first 3A softball title this spring. “She’s probably one of the most athletic females in our school. So just having her on the team benefits us. She’s played pitch, shortstop, center field, in fact, a lot of people say what a great shortstop she was. And I knew she was a good shortstop, but I had to play her in center field or pitch because of what else I had.”
Casper earned a 1.046 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 87 innings pitched, and a 14-1 record.
Moving a player to whatever position benefits a team most isn’t always an option for a coach. Sometimes a player doesn’t have the ability, other times, the athlete is unwilling. Casper not only didn’t care where Taylor put her, she joined with the team’s three other seniors in making sure this year was special for the squad.
“She has a great work ethic and a great attitude,” Taylor said. "She and the other three seniors, they weren’t going to accept anyone not working hard. There have been years in the past where people didn’t get along, and they really wanted to make sure everyone felt involved and got along. I thought their leadership was awesome.”
Taylor said Casper helped provide accountability by asking players to write down their personal goals and carry them in their pockets throughout the season.
“It allowed teammates to look at them and hold themselves accountable,” she said. “It showed, for one thing, how hard they worked. Some of them were ripped, some were dirty, it showed they put their blood, sweat and tears into it.”
Casper is a vocal leader, and along with her fellow senior captains, they elevated the play of each other and their teammates.
“They weren’t afraid when it was pregame,” Taylor said of team meetings. “They always had something to say and it was always positive. They gave out many thank yous.”
Casper, who heads to Pima Community College in Arizona, was the leadoff batter and she pitched every inning of the state tournament.
“It’s a lot harder to win a state championship without her on the mound,” Taylor said. “She’s a strong presence for us.”
2A MVP: Hannah Peterson, South Summit
South Summit senior pitcher Hannah Peterson’s greatest growth over the course of her prep career didn’t occur in what she could do physically.
“She’s really developed maturity,” said head coach Cody Bowen. “Her body type hasn’t changed at all, but she’s matured mentally and emotionally. When she was young, there were times when she’d get rattled, want to come out and didn’t like it when people were getting on her. Now she just digs in harder, fights more and has this attitude of ‘We’re not going to lose. We’re going to win this.’”
Peterson won MVP honors as a sophomore when South Summit also earned the 2A state title. But that was a very different campaign, Bowen said.
“As a sophomore, she had a really big supporting staff of seniors who were really good,” Bowen said. “She didn’t have to be as much of an emotional, mental leader. Most of the growth I’ve seen is leadership, example and positive nature. Even when things were tough, she stuck with it. She made huge strides as a captain and leader.”
This season Peterson led the Wildcat defense with a 19-3 record and a 1.47 ERA along with 199 strikeouts.
She was also a critical factor in the team’s offensive success. She batted .584, had 52 hits, scored 51 runs, drove in 48 RBIs, and belted six home runs. She will continue her softball career at the College of Southern Idaho.
“She’s very strong,” Bowen said of Peterson. “She’s got a strong arm, a lot of endurance. She works hard in the gym, runs a lot, lifts because she knows she’s going to have to be able to pitch a lot.”
Her contributions were not limited to defense.
“She’s incredibly fast,” Bowen said. “She only got thrown out once stealing for us. And honestly, I could put her anywhere defensively. She’s played center field.
"If there is a softball tool, she’s got it.”