Crystal Lake South softball coach Scott Busam freely admits people thought he and assistant coach Mark Hardie were "crazy" in the spring of 2011.
Sam McLean was not one of those.
The Gators needed a third baseman and since the left-handed McLean had played second base in baseball until eighth grade, and then shortstop for her Crystal Lake Comets summer softball team after that, playing a different infield position was no big deal.
But seeing someone left-handed play anything but first base does make one wonder if the coach is all there.
Until you see Sam McLean play the infield that is.
McLean played third base for the Gators her freshman year but then moved to shortstop, the position she came to excel at over the next three seasons while also developing into one of the area's premier hitters, capping off her high school career this season with a .554 batting average, 6 home runs and 35 RBI. Among her other eye-popping stats is the fact she struck out just 4 times in 107 plate appearances.
"She's unique in a lot of ways," said Busam, South's 11th-year coach. "We brought her up as a freshman for defense only -- I think she got 20 at-bats that year. We needed a third baseman. She did OK and once she got the footwork down we thought why not try her at shortstop. From freshman year on Mark and I and Sam were the only ones who didn't think it was weird. Everyone else looked at us like we were crazy.
"But then she got better. Then she got better than that. And then she got even better than that, and then her offensive game developed. She can hit a home run or she can bunt for a hit. She's the best opposite field hitter I've ever coached."
For her efforts this season, McLean has been chose as honorary captain of the Daily Herald's Fox Valley all-area softball team. She becomes the first CL South softball player to be so honored since the inception of the award in the Fox Valley in 1996.
McLean, who had a .902 fielding percentage this season with a team-high 60 assists, says there were some challenges to shortstop but overcoming them was a simple matter of getting the footwork down.
"One of the hardest things was covering second on a steal and having to go across the bag and do a backhanded swipe," she said. "I had to work hard on recognizing the steal and getting there quicker."
As her coaches recognized her natural ability in the infield, which hand she put her glove on became a moot issue. Now, they wanted to see her become a better hitter. And boy, did she. And not just a hitter but a complete offensive player.
In addition to the aforementioned stats, McLean had 7 triples, a .579 OBP (. 682 including errors), a .901 slugging percentage, with 61.7 percent of her at-bats considered quality. She hit over .630 with runners in scoring position.
She credits her offensive ascension this season to hard work and the tutelage of her hitting coach, former Elgin High baseball standout Rachaad Stewart, who was the Baltimore Orioles Minor League Player of the Year in 1995.
"He changed my stance and really elevated everything," said McLean, who enjoys swimming, tanning, hanging out with her friends, watching TV and admits to taking a lot of naps in her free time.
"He helped me transition into a new stance and made me realize what I was doing before was hurting me, and he fine-tuned it."
McLean also holds the coaching she got from Busam and Hardie over the years in high regard.
"When I came in freshman year I was really average," she says. "But with the warm-ups and drills we do and all of Busam's coaching and Mr. Hardie's coaching ... I feel they're the reason I am where I am now."
Where she is now is headed to Winona State to play on scholarship for Greg Jones, one of the top NCAA Division II coaches in the Midwest. Winona is also the alma mater of CL South alum Kaitlin Hardie, the Gators' shortstop who in 2009 led CLS to a supersectional berth. This past season, Hardie joined her dad and Busam in the Gators' dugout, another boost to McLean's career.
"I idolized Kaitlin Hardie growing up and I was excited when she was coming to coach us," said McLean, who has also played the outfield and who said Jones hasn't told her yet if he sees her college future in the infield or outfield. "She has so much to teach. It was nice for her to step in and she's pretty great."
"Sam really connected with Kaitlin and I think Kaitlin really recognized where Sam was at," Busam added. "Sam reminds me a lot of Kaitlin and there were some intricacies about softball Kait had from playing at a high level that she could use to tweak things and work on the little things with Sam to fine tune her game."
The daughter of Daniel and Debbie McLean with an older brother, Zack, McLean is grateful she had parents who supported her dream of playing college softball. After playing for the Comets and then the McHenry Heatwave, she has played the last few years with the highly regarded Illinois Chill travel program.
Originally committed to Division III Loras College, as she got better and better and more opportunities came along McLean had to make the tough decision to not go to Loras, a decision she's thankful her mom stood by her on.
"My mom has always been supportive and when I decided not to go to Loras she was supportive," said McLean, who said she'd like to go into something related to athletics when she's done with college. "She's always been on my side."
As has her dad, albeit quietly.
"My dad's the one who just sits on the sidelines and watched and I always appreciated that," McLean said. "I hate looking at all the parents who yell and scream all the time.
"I just have to thank my mom and dad for all the money they spent on travel and hitting lessons, and my brother for always being supportive and trying to keep me on track and all my other travel coaches for everything they did."
But around the CL South softball field, it's Busam and Mark Hardie who McLean has the most gratitude for.
"Just for everything they've done for me, especially with Winona," she said. "They were the ones constantly talking to coach Jones about me."
She also appreciates the lighter side of things Busam and Hardie brought to the game.
"They kept me entertained and they always made it fun," she said, recalling the time teammate Amy Ciavarella accidentally walked in on Hardie in a porta potty as one of her favorite funny moments.
Busam feels fortunate to have coached a player and person of McLean's caliber.
"I've been lucky to have a kid like that," he said. "And to have the character that comes with her. She's fun, she's hardworking, one of our captains, a leader vocally and physically. She showed the other girls what a good softball player is supposed to look like and she had great confidence and was always willing to help the younger players along.
"She just loved playing softball. She'd take grounders for hours straight and then want more."
Busam also thinks McLean's talent has just begun to blossom.
"The ceiling for Sam is unbelievable," he said. "When she gets college strength, conditioning and coaching it's unbelievable where she can go."
Above all Busam appreciated the humility with which McLean played.
"She never strutted around like she was better than everybody else," he said. "Instead she looked around and asked how she could help her teammates. We're going to miss what she did statistically but she did some other things for us and she brought some intangibles that are going to be really hard to replace. I feel blessed to have had her for four years and to see the evolution in her game from freshman year to now has been so exciting."
Even if most of the world thinks having a left-handed shortstop is crazy.