To Ashley Napean, “Aapa” means mom and dad.
That’s the name she – and her friends – still use to refer to her grandpa, John Napean, with whom Ashley’s always lived. That’s not to be confused with Opa, the German word for grandfather.
“She’s always called me that, because when was little, she couldn’t pronounce grandpa,” John said with a laugh.
John laughs a lot.
“He always thinks he’s super funny, and he’s always telling jokes in front of everyone,” Ashley said, “and I just don’t think he’s funny. All of my friends think he’s the funniest, cutest thing, but I’m kind of embarrassed.
“But I’m really glad he’s there. My grandpa is kind of like my dad and mom together.”
Despite the two-generation gap, the apple didn’t fall very far from the old oak.
Ashley inherited Aapa’s stubbornness, which led to years of bad pitching mechanics that even led to a partial tear of her rotator cuff.
“I’ve pitched my whole life with like my arm bent out too wide,” Ashley says, demonstrating the whirlwind windup she finally fixed this year. “I’d go all crazy-like, and I’d step out too wide. I’ve never pitched with the right mechanics until this year, and it’s finally showing.”
Napean struck out 16 a few days ago after fanning or punching out 42 in the single week before. She credits the Pierce family, most notably Jim, husband of her head coach, Kristy.
“Everybody in Lanark knew her mechanics were not right,” Kristy said. “It wasn’t hard to notice.”
Catcher Maddie Parker and first baseman Delaney Giedd watched their best bud struggle to accept help.
“She got very frustrated,” Maddie said.
“She’s very stubborn,” Delaney said.
“Every single bit of it, she gets from her grandfather,” Parker added.
But Jim, a longtime fastpitch softball hurler who also coached Kristy’s women’s team, finally broke through. Still, Ashley will be cruising along when one lapse makes her look over, aghast at what just crept back in.
“It’s not only satisfying from the coaching standpoint, but it’s so satisfying when the athlete says, ‘Whoa! That was wrong!’ “ Pearce said. “And it doesn’t hurt. I don’t know how she was doing it that way – I mean, it looked real pretty – and making it through a season.”
As John has predicted to Kristy since Ashley was a tyke, the talent was always there.
“Even when she was doing everything wrong, she was still popping the mitt,” Pearce said.
Now or never
Armed with a mechanically sound, bona fide ace – who can hit, too, John will remind you – the Cougars have an uphill postseason battle.
The No. 5 seed, Eastland opens with No. 4 Aquin today at Highland Community College, coincidentally the junior college Ashley will attend next year.
The Cougars’ youth and inexperience – outside of its four seniors – have reared their heads this season, including in a 6-5 loss to Aquin during a tournament game last month.
“Not to take anything away from them, but we had a huge blow-up inning,” Kristy Pearce said. “We gave away four runs. And we’ve done that a lot.”
But Ashley, Maddie and Delanie agree that those blow-up innings have become fewer and, rather than leading to multiple poor innings, are usually contained to one.
“To beat them, or anyone, it’s all in our heads,” Delanie said. “We can’t think about the mistakes we’ve made. We have to move on and think about the play ahead of us, and how we’re going to execute it right.”
“Communication is everything,” Parker said.
Should the Cougars beat the Bulldogs, Ashley can’t wait for one more crack at top-seeded Milledgeville, the third-place team in last year’s Class 1A state tournament, as well as the hurdle that’s tripped up the Cougars her first three prep seasons.
“Beating Milledgeville has been my goal for 3 years, and I know we have it in us,” Ashley said.
Dedication on, off the diamond
Ashley gets up early every morning to catch the bus and go to the Whiteside County Health Department.
She earned her CNA last year and is working internships through Allied Health Systems. After the morning routine and classes, practice or games loom.
“It is a long day,” Ashley admits. “It’s even longer on the way there and the way back. You get tired of it, every day going to Sterling.”
Yet Parker says Ashley doesn’t slow down after practice, and Giedd mentions that she’s the driving force behind “Sunday fundays” on Eastland’s softball diamond.
“She’ll pitch, and we’ll hit, just to keep everything moving,” Giedd said. “Keep her loose. Keep us loose. Anything to help.”
John admits he wishes Ashley’s dedication would have shown up more in her studies.
“If she put her mind to it, she could probably be an ‘A’ student,” he said.
Yet she’s garnered three scholarships worth a total of $4,000, and John is grateful. After all, it hasn’t been easy on him.
‘I’ve paid my dues’
About 20 years ago, Ashley’s parents asked him to watch their son and daughter, Richard and Candice, for about 2 weeks.
Since then, all he’s done is put them all through high school and even come out of retirement to work part-time at B&N Electric to make ends meet at the young, young age of 73.
“It’s hard to raise all these kids like this,” John admits. “You can’t just retire and support them on retirement pay.”
His hard work is why he’s not shy about sharing his opinion at games, whether it’s with the umps – he’s done plenty of it himself – or the coaches – that, too.
“I’ve paid my dues,” John said. “With all the umpiring and coaching I’ve done, I’ll speak up if I want to. But I try to keep it down as much as I can.”
‘It’s easier this way’
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are tricky for Ashley.
For the most part, she makes jokes to keep things light. See, her mom passed away in 2006, after having a heart attack while on the job as a truck driver.
“I actually never met her,” Ashley said. “She would call me, but then she’d cry and I’d just kind of hang up, because I didn’t know what to do.”
On one occasion, Ashley says she was asked to call her estranged mother “Mom.”
“I just did not feel comfortable doing that,” she said. “I couldn’t.
“I’m kind of glad it happened, that I never met her, because it would’ve been harder, her passing away, with me knowing her.”
She says her dad has “never really been around,” although John says his son did the best he could.
The bottom line is that John picked up the slack.
“My Aapa took us,” Ashley said. “He says that’s the best decision he’s ever made in his life. That makes me really happy.”
Hearing that Ashley said that gave John pause, which is unusual for a guy who’s never lost for words.
“That makes me feel really good about it,” John said. “because she doesn’t say too much to me about it at all.
“It wasn’t easy raising these kids. But I love them, too, very much.”