PALM HARBOR — When Moriah Connolly strolls to the plate, the whole ballpark takes note. Infielders move in, knowing they will have to hurry throws to get Connolly on a grounder. Fans sit up. Even the announcer pays closer attention.
Connolly, Palm Harbor University’s leadoff hitter, draws so much attention because her fearsome combination of raw speed and impeccable judgment make it virtually impossible to keep her on first base.
Through 27 games, Connolly has stolen 48 bases, nearly two a game. With a strong run through the postseason, which starts Thursday against Wharton in the Class 8A region quarterfinals, Connolly could slide safely into the county record books. She needs 10 stolen bases to break the Pinellas County record of 57 set by former Countryside standout Ayanna Andrews, now at LSU.
“It wasn’t until I started seeing the stats in the newspaper that I knew I had a lot of stolen bases,” Connolly said. “We started figuring who had the record after that.
“But honestly, the stolen bases don’t matter as much as winning a state title. I wouldn’t care if I stole another base if we were able to do that.”
Connolly has always been an athlete. She played basketball as a freshman and ran track her first two years at PHU. But softball was always her favorite. She played in the outfield and developed into a good hitter.
But it is her speed that keeps opposing teams — and pitchers — on edge.
“Speed is just a gift,” Connolly said. “If you were fast, you were born fast. I guess I get it from my dad (Sean Roundtree). He ran track at Arizona State.”
Connolly has used that speed in a variety of ways, often with reckless abandon. She slides hard for steals and dives headfirst to snag fly balls. And it has come with a price. She has torn the labrum in her shoulder — twice, the last coming in the fall of 2011 that forced to miss all of the high school season last year.
“That was tough,” Connolly said. “I would come to games, but it was hard because I was physically unable to play.”
She came back stronger, focused — and injury free. She also has reinvented her swing, switching from a right-handed hitter into a left-handed one.
The move came two years ago at the urging of the Hurricanes coaches to give her a head start toward first. The plan is that Connolly gets on base then she steals a base. Then maybe there’s a base hit or an infield out and the runner advances to third, and maybe another of the same and Connolly scores. The opposition finds itself swiftly in a hole.
“It’s something that’s just been a mind-set ever since Chuck (Poetter) started coaching here,” said PHU first-year coach Kerry Katchuk said. “Once we ask a batter to become left-handed, we don’t want them to bat right-handed again because we want them to buy into it completely. It’s a struggle at first, but the pay comes quickly.”
While she has fulfilled her promise on the basepaths, Connolly has also been steady at the plate, hitting .536. She is purely a slap hitter at this stage — of her 45 hits with PHU all but five have been singles — but makes up for it with patience and a good eye, and her walk totals (20 this season) have added about 100 points to her on-base percentage (.625).
“Moriah has become such a weapon for us,” Katchuk said. “It’s tough for opponents because when she leads off an inning by getting on base, she scores about 97 percent of the time. That’s got to be tough for an opponent.”