South Elgin's Buddle the consummate leader
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For the most part, high school softball coaches call pitches, or have one of their assistants do it.
Unless they have an elite catcher who has the knowledge to call her own game.
South Elgin coach Jason Schaal has had that luxury for three years with junior Alyssa Buddle.
"I know a lot of coaches call pitches but with Alyssa it's just giving her a quick Cliff's Notes before each game," Schaal says. "I've never called a pitch in three years with Alyssa behind the plate. She's very smart and she's developed a good rapport with our pitchers. When your pitcher and catcher are on the same page it can take a team a long way."
It definitely helped the Storm this season. Buddle's abilities and calming influence on a young South Elgin pitching staff helped the team win 19 games and a regional championship.
And, oh, she can hit, too. From her .505 batting average to her .946 slugging percentage, Buddle is one of the most feared hitters in the Upstate Eight Conference.
For her efforts this season, Buddle has been selected the honorary captain of the Daily Herald's Fox Valley all-area team. She is the third South Elgin player to earn the award, following Kim Pierce in 2009 and Katelyn Stonecipher in 2011.
Buddle's catching mentality and hitting abilities were formed at a young age and she credits Wasco Diamonds travel coaches Bill Morrow and Matt Schacht for her progress (she now plays for the Beverly Bandits). But playing at a high level in travel ball also requires changing the mentality for the high school season, and that may be what Buddle was most successful at. Working with untested varsity pitchers this season was a stark contrast from catching Division I recruits in the fall and summer. And with three-year mainstay Sam Bolin graduated, the pitching at South Elgin this year fell on a group that had very little varsity experience coming into the season.
"My mindset was to work spots with the pitchers because the movement and speed wasn't there," said Buddle, who has committed to Division I James Madison and former Chicago Bandits coach Mickey Dean. "Groundballs or in the air was OK but home runs was how we lost most of our games."
Buddle didn't always want to be a catcher.
"When I played park district I was a catcher and I hated it," she said. "I didn't know how to drop and block and I hated it. At Wasco I learned how to block and everything, and I loved it. As a catcher you're in control of the game. Wasco teaches you to call a game. You have to learn to watch where a player is standing in the box, where her knuckles are ... you have to learn everything."
Which would make it easy enough for Buddle to carry an "I know everything" attitude into her high school season, especially now that with the Bandits she's playing travel ball at the very highest level. But that's not how this Bartlett resident approaches her time in Storm red, white and blue.
"You can't get lazy. You gotta work hard no matter what," said Buddle, the daughter of Dave and Cindy Buddle whose brother Drew is entering his senior baseball season next year at Lewis University, and whose other brother Joey just graduated from South Elgin.
"No matter the level of competition, you have to work hard to be the best teammate you can be. We'll have a new coach next year so I have to be the leader for the younger girls. They need someone to look up to. When I was a freshman I looked up to Stoney and she was great."
"She's always been very positive and been able to separate the two," said Schaal, who is leaving South Elgin for a position at Grayslake Central. "You never hear her say 'my travel team does this or that.' She takes charge of her team on and off the field. Her ability to work with our pitchers was tremendous. Her timing was always right on. You have those special players now and then who will always be remembered. Alyssa understands what needs to be done and she's done a great job for us for three years. I'll be watching her progress next year and I know she's just going to get better and better."
And to think Buddle didn't even think she'd make the varsity team as a freshman.
"I went into freshman year telling my dad I didn't think I'd make the high school team," she said. "My biggest thing is I want to be the best and I love it when people better than me push me."
And Buddle pushing her teammates helped the Storm succeed this season.
"Everyone on our team got along this year," she said. "It was nice. There were no cliques or groups. We had freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors and on the field we all came together. That made it so much more enjoyable."
A softball fan's joy comes from watching players like Buddle hit, her successes coming from natural ability and hard work. In addition to hitting .505 with a .946 slugging percentage this season, she had 8 home runs, 39 RBI, 11 doubles, 3 triples and struck out only 6 times in 93 at-bats. She scored 29 runs, had a .573 OBP and even stole 4 bases in 5 attempts.
"Her hand speed and her ability to get the bat through the zone is incredible," Schaal said. "The ball just flies off her bat and I've never had anyone who generates power like her in the 3-4 spot and she's done that since her freshman year."
Buddle will return to South Elgin in the fall, but Schaal, who has also become her confidant, will be gone and that's about the only thing Buddle regrets about not graduating this year.
"Schaal loved what he did and loves the game," said Buddle, who will major in education at James Madison and wants to coach after college. "He always tried to better himself. You walk in his office and he has tons of softball books on his desk and he always goes to clinics.
"He'd do anything for us. His biggest thing is team bonding. He wants his players to have great chemistry because that's what makes a great team. He was more than a coach to me. He was like my dad to me. I could go to him with anything."
Buddle's decision to go to James Madison wasn't an easy one, but it became the logical choice when the opportunity for a free education presented itself. She also visited the likes of Wisconsin, Miami of Ohio, DePaul and Saint Louis, among others.
"I went on many visits and I wanted to play in the Big Ten," she said. "But why go to the Big Ten if you're not going to play until your junior year and not get as much money? At James Madison I'll have a chance to play right away and I'm getting a free education. I didn't even know about James Madison and I wasn't really interested. On my visit I was trying to pick out something I hated and I loved everything."
The new South Elgin coach will certainly have a luxury with a player and person of Buddle's caliber — a coach on the field — returning next year.
"She's a very special player and a very special person," Schaal said. "It's been a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with her for three years and I wish her nothing but the best."
And that's what Buddle was for South Elgin this season — the best.
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