Hailey Eckelberry has never been afraid of the big stage. In fact, the larger the platform, the greater the Cloverleaf senior performs.
The second-seeded Colts (18-8) return to the LaGrange Division II District semifinals for the third time in four seasons Tuesday when they play third-seeded Firelands (15-4) or sixth-seeded Buckeye (15-10).
That Cloverleaf is making the trip is no surprise to Eckelberry, who has been part of the team’s success for four seasons
“The saying is, ‘Go big or go home,’” Eckelberry said. “I think there’s no point in giving 50, 75 or 90 percent. I think you should always give your all. You should leave nothing on the field or the dugout. As soon as that game ends, I know that I gave everything and have nothing left.
“That’s what makes me feel good. I know I did my best. I know I tried to keep my team’s energy up. I think there’s no point in not going as hard as you can. That’s what keeps us the team we are in the dugout. Everyone is always giving, giving, giving.”
That’s the way the Akron signee has played her entire life and it’s a mindset that has brought success.
She enters Tuesday with a .475 career average (162-for-341) 27 doubles, seven triples and 65 RBIs. She’s more than that, however, with 72 stolen bases in 82 attempts (.878).
The leadoff hitter can lay one down the third-base line and beat the throw or go opposite field with a sweet stroke.
“She has been a great hitter throughout her career,” Cloverleaf coach John Carmigiano said. “She definitely has more ways to get on in her arsenal as her career has gone on. She’ll bunt her way on. She can slam the ball to the fence. She can go to the opposite field or pull one down the line. All the work she’s put in has allowed her to be the player she is.”
That work can’t be understated, as she works year-round to hone her game.
Eckelberry is a natural right-handed hitter but switched to left when she was 14 with the encouragement from her coaches and father.
While it felt unnatural at first, she started playing small ball with bunts and slap hitting. Once that part came, her natural power followed. While Eckelberry still throws right, her ability to turn things around at the plate has made her a more polished player.
“It’s a hard game to love sometimes, because it is a game of failure,” Eckelberry said. “It’s hard to stay mentally strong when a good batting average is still below .500 in travel and even sometimes in high school. I love the game because it has brought so many great people into my life, great friends, great coaches. Those coaches have been life role models to me.
“I give so much to the game, but the game gives so much more back to me with experiences. It’s paying for my education. Everything I’ve worked for in softball is to get that education. I think the big picture is not only to become a complete athlete, but a complete person in life. I think athletes have life-defining moments while playing and that the game has given so, so much to me.”
The passion for the game has produced strong numbers. She leads the team in batting average (.493), on-base percentage (.615), slugging percentage (.684), OPS (1.300), hits (36), triples (3) and runs (41) and shares the lead in stolen bases with Ashley Campfield (29).
“She’s just so consistent because of all the work she’s put into this,” Carmigiano said. “She knew she would have to step up this year when we lost a lot of our firepower, and she hasn’t disappointed. She leads us off, sets the table and has provided many sparks to the offense.
“She has such a love for the game. She knows what it takes to win. She’s not afraid to get her teammates going and lead us. I’ve noticed this year, especially that she’s taken a strong leadership role, and it’s been part of the secret to our success.”
In the past, Eckelberry has looked up to Alli Gray, Addi Gray and Brooke Swain. This season, she has put on her own spin.
Carmigiano sees those qualities rubbing off on others and sees a team playing above its potential.
Eckelberry sees it as a way to give back to a game that has provided her the blueprint for success.
“I had leaders in my life that inspired me to be a better player and I want to be that for other people,” Eckelberry said. “It’s great to keep energy going in the dugout. It’s great to hype people up in the games and to make people understand it’s on the field, in the classroom and in life that they can be leaders. It starts with someone setting the example. That’s what I’m hoping to do.”