Chicago Bandits 22-year-old rookie Alisa Goler knows exactly when her softball career began.
The Homewood, Ill., native picked up a bat for the first time more than 20 years ago at the tender age of 2.
"My parents happened to get me a tee, and I started swinging and they were like, 'oh, she's pretty good.' "
Her progress didn't stop there. At age 8, she moved up to a travel league, making her the youngest player on the team.
"From there, softball was my life. It still is," said Goler.
After playing for Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfort, she took a leap and picked Georgia over Northwestern to play college ball, saying the SEC atmosphere and attention on sports won her over. And when the 2011 NPF draft came around, Goler got her wish to play for her home team.
"I was in middle school when they first started the Chicago Bandits, and I was like, 'yeah, I want to play for the Bandits,'" she said. "And this past year, it actually became a reality."
Since joining the team, Goler has made a national name for herself. On a team heavy with young talent, she leads the race for Rookie of the Year honors and is among the league's best batters across the board.
Thursday night she hit her 11th home run of the season -- a walk off blast -- to take the NPF home lead from USSSA Pride power-hitter Jessica Mendoza for most home runs (10), and is fourth in the league in both hits (32) and batting average. Her .333 average makes her the only rookie in the top 6 and the only rookie above .300.
The next two rookies on the list are Bandits teammates Danielle Zymkowitz (.296) and Megan Wiggins (.279), who sit at sixth and eighth.
"It's crazy," Goler said. "My teammates keep joking with me about it, (but) I don't really want to think about it. It's been great so far, I hope I continue to play that way … not for numbers, but so that I can help us win more games."
With her 11 home runs, Goler is only two behind the Bandits season record of 13 by Stacy May-Johnson. Ironically, May-Johnson came out of retirement and rejoined the Bandits lineup on Thursday, blasting her first home run of the season.
Goler, who can play either first or third base, is also second in the league in RBIs (28) and walks (18) and has committed only 2 errors in 33 games.
The road to this point hasn't presented many obstacles to Goler, but the ones she has faced have been significant.
"My junior year of college in the fall, I was taking batting practice and I swung and three of my ribs dislocated … so I missed the entire fall."
She thought she would to have to redshirt that year, but managed to recover and play that season. However, "I was in pain until probably midway through the season."
Her next challenge took on a very different form.
In March, one of her closest friends since the 6th grade, Kelly Laas, passed away after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
"It was hard, but it put softball in perspective," said Goler. "If I don't go 3-for-3 in a game, it's not the end of the world …(Kelly) played softball in college and she can never do it again, so it changed the way I play the game."
Laas was the first person Goler met when her family moved to Frankfort, and Goler wears a wrist band in her memory.
"I have a picture in my locker … and I have a picture in my car. It's something that not a lot of people go through. It still doesn't make sense to me, like why I lost her," Goler said, but added with a smile, "She's helped me with softball, and I know that she's watching the games."
The games this weekend have the Bandits (19-17) taking on the Pride (27-8) in Rosemont in the final regular season series. The NPF playoffs begin on Wednesday.
For now, Goler has her focus set on the next few weeks of softball.
"I just want to do whatever it takes, whether it's defensively or offensively, to help us win games. I'd rather get no hits in a game and win it all than get a home run and lose the game."
The Bandits (20-17)close out the NPF regular season with three home games today through Sunday at Rosemont Stadium against the Pride (27-9). The NPF playoffs begin on Wednesday.