Never once on a high school softball diamond was Ashli King uncomfortable. Sure, she felt the highs after wins and the lows after losses, the thrill of smoking a home run and the disappointment of striking out … and even the pain of a collision at home plate.
But it was just the familiar background noise of playing her favorite sport with friends who she had known for years.
Last year, when the 2012 Sterling grad arrived in Bloomington-Normal to play for Heartland Community College, all of a sudden things were different.
"I didn't know everybody here," King said via phone Thursday afternoon. "It was like being a freshman all over again, but with a group of kids you'd never met before."
A season-and-a-half later, things are back to the status quo for the standout catcher. After leading by example last season, she's become more vocal in the dugout, and it's led to a strong season for both herself and her Heartland team.
"I've really relaxed a lot more, and I understand what's going on around me on and off the field," King said. "I know when I have to put the weight of things on my own shoulders, and how to be a team player and be there for all my teammates."
The adjustment period has also been helped along this season with the arrival of two more players from the Sauk Valley. Freshmen Emily Bush from Milledgeville and Hope Smith from Oregon have joined the fray for Heartland, and King is appreciative of familiar names with familiar backgrounds to her own.
"It's been great to have some fellow 815-ers down here with me," King said, referring to the local area code. "It was really cool to hear they were coming. I'd heard their names, seen them in the paper, but now that I know them in person, it's just really cool."
King was a familiar name to the other two, as well, but it's not as if they followed her to Heartland. Bush and Smith came to the decision on their own.
"When you're used to playing with everybody on your team from when you were little, it's tough to find that same feeling when you go someplace new," Smith said. "Meeting new people, living on my own, that's been really different, but we're all in that same position, and we've all clicked very well."
It's been tougher for Bush, who has seen her freshman season derailed with an arm injury. While she's adapting to new faces and new places, she's also fighting the internal battle with herself over being unable to play.
She believes that because every player on her new team is in the same boat, it's helped them all cope with the changes.
"It's hard to come together with new people, but everyone on the team felt that way," Bush said. "We're not all alike when it comes to where we grew up and how we grew up .. but I think that helped us mesh."
As she was for the Golden Warriors, King has become a catalyst behind the plate at Heartland (32-19). Coach Steve Leverton uses the word "clutch" while talking about the veteran backstop, and is not the least bit surprised that King has become one of his most reliable players both offensively and defensively.
"She's about as good a defensive catcher as you can get at any level," Leverton said, "and she's had a breakout year at the plate this season. She's a good, solid all-around player, the kind of kid you want on your team."
That breakout year includes a batting average of .418, an on-base percentage of .476, and a slugging percentage of .651. King has 10 doubles, eight home runs, 45 RBIs, and 33 runs scored. She has struck out just 13 times in 170 plate appearances.
King said the time spent at Heartland has led to some Division I offers, though she's still weighing her options as to where she'll continue her softball career next year.
"I'm so happy I came here," King said, "because I've met so many different people from everywhere around the state and beyond. It's a great team, a great group of girls, and nobody can touch us if we hit the ball and play as a team."
That offense is what struck Smith the first time she saw Heartland play. During her official campus visit, she marveled at how "brand new and beautiful and clean" everything was.
But when she got to the diamond, that's when her eyes got really big.
"This team hits like crazy," Smith said, "and it was a little intimidating."
Smith is fitting right in, hitting .355 with a .433 on-base percentage and a .572 slugging percentage. She has 10 doubles and a triple to go with six homers, and has driven in 24 runs while scoring 39. She has walked 16 times and struck out 19 in 157 plate appearances.
Smith's adjustment to college ball came complete with a pitching change. While Leverton expected her to be a backup catcher, he has found the 2013 Oregon grad's versatility to be a big benefit for his team.
"Hope has played everywhere, it seems," Leverton said. "She's a force offensively, with a lot of power, and she can scald the ball. Then, with her athleticism and strong arm, she's become a really solid right fielder for us."
Smith spent some time at third base and second base due to injuries and departures by other girls to 4-year programs at semester. But she feels like she's really found a home in right field.
"In the fall, I was struggling to hit, so I hit off a tee every day during the winter at our inside hitting facility," Smith said. "I've also found out that I really like the outfield. It's completely different than catching, but I like it the most of any position I've played, and it's opened up some options for me when it comes to playing after I'm done at Heartland."
Bush started the school year in a really good place, athletically and emotionally. After dealing with more stomach pain from an appendectomy during high school, she had surgery in the fall to remove some scar tissue from the earlier operation. She pitched pain-free during fall ball, and was looking forward to her freshman spring season.
Then that all changed. During offseason workouts, she was diagnosed with chronic tendinitis in her right (pitching) elbow. She's been sidelined ever since.
"I fixed one problem, then there's another one," Bush said. "I wasn't doing the right workout things for me, and my elbow started hurting. I waited a couple weeks for it to go away, but it didn't, and an MRI showed it wasn't just regular tendinitis.
"It's been hard to sit and watch this year instead of being out there. It wouldn't have been as bad if I could have played for even a few games, but being out for the whole season isn't fun."
Bush has battled through her disappointment, however, and remained an active part of the team. She keeps the scorebook on Leverton's iPad from the dugout every game, and stays involved by keeping her teammates up to date on past at-bats and little things she sees while studying opposing pitchers' form and habits.
Leverton, for one, really appreciates what Bush still brings to the table.
"She definitely helps out, for me and for the other girls," Leverton said. "She's a 4.0 student, so she's book smart, but she also really knows the game of softball. Not having her as a big cog in what we thought we were going to do this year has certainly affected how we've done things, but she's found ways to help us be effective."
As much as her coach and teammates enjoy having her around, Bush is grateful to them for being there for her.
"I try to stay involved with the rest of the girls, and it's great that they're not leaving me behind just because I'm hurt," Bush said. "They're all supportive of what I'm going through, not mad that I can't be out there for them, and they all want me back as bad as I want to be back.
"But I've learned a lot about softball – and a lot about myself – this year. I'm figuring out what's best for me, trying to find out where I'm going in life, and I know better what I want and what I don't want. I appreciate everything more, and it's made me really want to push myself to get back to giving my best on the field."
High school: Sterling, class of 2012
Stats: .418 BA, .476 OBP, .651 SLG, 146 AB, 61 H, 10 2B, 8 HR, 45 RBI, 33 R
FYI: Is currently weighing offers to play next season at a 4-year college.
High school: Oregon, class of 2013
Position: Right field
Stats: .355 BA, .433 OBP, .572 SLG, 138 AB, 49 H, 10 2B, 1 3B, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 39 R
FYI: Came to Heartland as a catcher, but played outfield, third base and second base before becoming the team's starting right fielder.
High school: Milledgeville, class of 2013
FYI: Had surgery early in fall season to remove scar tissue left over from appendectomy during high school. … MRI in late winter revealed chronic tendinitis in right (pitching) elbow. … Has not played in a game during spring season.