Leah Freeman was not only a freshman on the Newport Harbor High softball team this season, but she was a young freshman.
Freeman turns 15 on Monday.
“Almost there,” she said in June. “I’ve always played with the older girls. I’ve never really felt younger than them, I guess.”
You can get old in a hurry playing third base in the Sunset League, which featured three teams — Los Alamitos, Edison and Huntington Beach — that reached at least the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoffs. Los Al, which made it to the semifinals, was the top-ranked team in the country by Maxpreps.com early in the season.
The Griffins had 10 seniors committed to NCAA Division 1 programs. These were the type of hitters Freeman was trying to field at the hot corner. Sailors Coach Mike Hunter tried to prepare her. He estimated he hit about 1,000 ground balls to Freeman at third.
What he found, surprisingly enough, was that Freeman was ready.
“You’re asking a kid to drop inside of 35, 40 feet, so she can cover slappers in the Sunset League,” Hunter said. “Then those slappers, in a moment’s notice, can turn and swing on a pitch. Some of the power-hitters in the league, they hit balls in excess of 80 miles an hour at her, and she gloved it, knocked it down, made play after play. I mean, it’s just ridiculous the vision and awareness that you have to have, and the sheer heart.”
Freeman displayed a lot of that, not only on defense but by stepping in as the Sailors’ leadoff hitter. And, while Newport Harbor failed to win a league game for the third straight year — “Next year,” Hunter said — Freeman was a big part of the softball team that was still the best in the Newport-Mesa area, with a Battle of the Bay victory over Corona del Mar and a nonleague win against Estancia.
For her contributions to that team, Freeman is the 2015-16 Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team Softball Player of the Year.
Freeman earned it for the Sailors, helping them go 10-2-1 in nonleague and tournament competition. The 10 wins was the most for the program since 2012.
Senior Ashley McInerny was supposed to start the year at third base for Newport Harbor, but Hunter ended up moving her to first base. He had changed his mind after watching Freeman play.
“From Day One, what impressed me most about this kid was her heart and her work ethic,” Hunter said. “She took nothing for granted. There was no way she didn’t know that she was going to be on varsity, but she didn’t come out there and arrogantly announce her presence. She was a very quiet-spoken young lady, who just worked extra, extra hard.”
Considering the competition level, Freeman hit a more-than-respectable .258 in her freshman campaign. The second-team All-Sunset League selection was durable, not missing a game, and led the Sailors with 24 runs scored.
Other intangibles impressed Hunter. She was second on the team with 10 walks, which helped her achieve a .372 on-base percentage. And when she got on base, she was a threat, stealing a Newport-Mesa best 22 bases in 24 attempts.
“This kid did anything we needed her to do for the team,” Hunter said. “To put her up there at the leadoff spot? Big leap of faith. You make a statement. When you put a kid at No. 1 you say, ‘That’s my toughest out,’ right? Well, she was.
“She was a tough out, which really set the tone for the rest of the lineup. At the No. 1 spot, you don’t get a lot of RBIs there [just two for the season], but she did her job. She showed up in some really big moments. It’s a real success story for that kid, and I’m very excited for where she’s going, how much better she’s going to be next year.”
Freeman already knew many of her Sailors teammates from travel-ball. Two summers ago, she played with Sailors teammates Diana Surber, Sammy del Toro and Kendall Machado on the Newport-Mesa Softball 14-and-under team that became the first Newport-Mesa team to advance to the American Softball Assn. Western Nationals in Oregon.
“That was the team that made me play as a team player, instead of as an individual,” Freeman said. “We were so close on that team. When you’re closer as a team, it helps you play better for sure.”
At the time, Freeman was playing up as a 12-year-old. Age is just something that doesn’t faze her.
Neither does responsibility. When the Sailors briefly lost starting catcher Lesly de la Rosa to injury, guess who volunteered to play the position?
“I just felt like as the only freshman, it would be good to step up and just say, ‘I’m willing to do this,’” Freeman said. “I thought that would be good, even though it’s kind of a scary thing to do, to catch.”
Freeman stayed at third. She didn’t play scared, though. In the Battle of the Bay game, she hit her only triple of the season and scored a run as the Sailors beat Corona del Mar, 7-2, after losing the rivalry game last year.
This year’s Battle of the Bay win especially meant a lot to the Sailors’ upperclassmen, who got much of the attention during the team’s hot start to the season. Still, Freeman maintained her standout play.
“While I was on the team I kind of felt unnoticed sometimes, because it was all about the upperclassmen and them doing well,” she said. “I made it my goal to show them that I was just as good as them, so I think that helped me ... I tried to make this season about never giving up, and always just trying hard.”
Hunter said he sees a bright future, possibly one with college softball, in Freeman’s future.
After all, if she can survive playing third base in the Sunset League, she can survive anything.
"[The ball] comes so fast,” she said. “It’s like you don’t really see it. It’s insane. It really kept me on my toes for sure ... You just react without realizing what you’re doing. I had a couple of line drives come at me, and I just put my glove out and caught it.”
The Sailors were fine with trusting Freeman’s instincts.
Here’s a look at the other 10 selections for the Newport-Mesa Softball Dream Team:
Corona del Mar
The Sea Kings had to wait for McCrane to become eligible after she transferred from Berkeley High in the Bay Area. It was worth the wait for CdM, as the sophomore played in the last 13 games of the season. Though her first position is center field, McCrane provided a pitcher the Sea Kings desperately needed after graduating two-time Newport-Mesa Player of the Year Sydney McKeown, who now plays at Ole Miss. McCrane batted .400 in league for CdM (2-20, 0-10 in league), and outgoing coach Carly Smith cited her as a role model for her teammates. She was a first-team All-Pacific Coast League selection.
Rios, a senior co-captain and shortstop, continued to rake for the Eagles. She hit a team-best .500 and also led Estancia with 26 RBIs, helping the Eagles go 10-13, 6-4 in the Orange Coast League to claim third place and return to the CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoffs. She had a standout game at rival Costa Mesa, going four for five with her lone home run of the season as the Eagles won the first Battle for the Bell game, 11-8. Rios finished her career at Estancia as a four-year varsity player and two-year team captain. A first-team All-Orange Coast League selection, she also is a repeat Dream Team selection.
Alvis was a standout defensive shortstop for the Mustangs, seemingly making one or two highlight plays every game. But the junior could hit, too. Alvis hit .566, which was second on Costa Mesa as well as in the Newport-Mesa area. She led her team with 34 runs scored, helping Costa Mesa go 10-9, and 5-5 in league for fourth place, the most total wins in Coach Heather Orduña’s four-year tenure. Alvis, a first-team All-Orange Coast League and repeat Dream Team selection, also had seven doubles, a team-best three triples and stole 13 bases, which also led Costa Mesa.
Sammy del Toro
Del Toro, a junior, split the pitching duties with senior captain Haley Martinez the previous two years. This year, Martinez moved to center field to fill a team need, so the job in the circle was mostly up to del Toro. She was up to the challenge, starting 19 of the team’s 22 games. As Sailors Coach Mike Hunter said midway through the season, “pitching is king,’ and del Toro gave Newport Harbor a chance every time out. Pitching in the ultra-competitive Sunset League, she finished 9-10 with a 3.48 earned-run average. On offense, del Toro was second on the Sailors with a .288 batting average, and her 15 RBIs placed her second on the squad as well.
Corona del Mar
The junior third baseman and shortstop again provided a big bat for the Sea Kings in the middle of the lineup. A team captain, Franson led CdM with a .429 batting average, including CdM’s only two home runs of the season. She also had team-best totals of four doubles and four triples, and her 19 steals were second on the squad. Franson, a dedicated travel-ball player, looks forward to a big senior year for CdM. She is a repeat Dream Team selection and earned second-team All-Pacific Coast League accolades.
Maya Van Den Heever
The senior center fielder covered a lot of ground in the outfield for the Eagles, but she was no less proficient at the plate. Van Den Heever finished second on Estancia in batting average (.458) and third in runs batted in (19), and she hit a team-best nine doubles. Outgoing Eagles coach Carrie Lester will miss guiding Maya and her twin sister Nefertiti, who plan to go to Orange Coast College and play basketball there. Maya finished her Estancia career with four Dream Team selections for girls’ basketball, and this is her third such selection for softball as well.
A senior catcher, Farldow provided leadership as a co-captain and her presence meant a lot during her three years on varsity. She helped the Mustangs improve in that time, and had quite a season at the plate as a senior. Farldow batted .450 and had 27 RBIs, the latter stat ranking second on the team. She also hit four home runs, which was also second on the Mustangs. Farldow earned first-team All-Orange Coast League honors and this is also her second straight Dream Team appearance.
Machado stepped into a co-captain role as a junior for the Sailors. She also stepped into a lot of pitchers’ mistakes and made them pay for them. She was the player who Hunter said he might have seen the most improvement from over the course of the season. Machado, a second baseman, hit .281 with a team-best five doubles. She was second on the team with a .410 on-base percentage, thanks partially to her team-best 14 walks. She also stole 14 bases.
Kubisty was a co-captain for the Eagles, a rarity for a sophomore, but she played above her age bracket. She plays for Hunter’s 18U SoCal Sharks travel-ball team, and the Newport coach was quick to sing her praises, calling her “a Division 1 player playing in a Division 5 league.” Though she plays shortstop in travel-ball, she played third base as well as relief pitcher for Estancia. Offensively, she was a catalyst at the top of the lineup with a team-best 34 runs scored, to go along with a .434 batting average that ranked fifth on Estancia. She also had a team-best five stolen bases and earned second-team All-Orange Coast League accolades.
The freshman center fielder burst onto the scene for the Mustangs, hitting seven home runs in the team’s first seven games. She finished leading the Newport-Mesa area in several offensive categories, including her .574 batting average, nine home runs and 38 RBIs. Belmontes also played well in many of Mesa’s most important games. She homered in all three of the Mustangs’ games against rival Estancia, two of which Costa Mesa won by a single run. Belmontes, also a talented basketball player, will look to lead the Mesa softball team in future seasons.