SEFFNER — Consistency.
Players strive to reach it, and coaches crave it. Consistency sets softball players apart and is a safety net for coaches who know exactly what they're getting from their players. It allows coaches to sleep a little easier knowing they can plan on penciling a player in on the lineup card every game.
In Nicci Hopps' case, that means every game for the past five years.
"She's about as consistent as you can get," Seffner Christian coach Andy Holmes said.
Hopps, the Crusaders' catcher, has been a fixture in Seffner Christian's starting lineup one year longer than the term of a United States president. And area pitchers take note: Hopps still has one more year after this season.
"It feel like I've been here forever sometimes," said Hopps, who first took the field for the Crusaders as a seventh-grader.
And the junior standout hasn't just brought her glove and tossed it on the field. For the second consecutive year, she ranks near the top in area batting averages. Hopps hit an eye-popping .656 with four homers and 28 RBIs during her sophomore season. She has followed up that stellar junior campaign this season by hitting — you guessed it — .656 with four home runs and 43 RBIs through Tuesday.
There's that word again: consistency.
"My mom and my friends will show me my stats, but I try not to pay attention to all that," Hopps said. "For me, it's about the team first."
And this year's team has been a challenge for Hopps. For the past few years she has been the youngster on the Crusaders. But with no seniors on the roster this year, Hopps has been counted on to provide leadership.
"She's been here so long and knows the system so well, it's like having another coach out on the field," Holmes said.
But it has been a role Hopps has struggled with at times. There is a fine line between instructing and coming across as a know-it-all when dealing with your peers.
"It was hard at first," Hopps said. "When the younger players don't know you very well, you have to be calm with them and not let them think you're bossing them around."
But Hopps said as the year has worn on, the younger players have become more comfortable in understanding the situation.
"It's my time to step up and be a leader, and I think we've all come a long way (since the beginning of the season)," Hopps said. "This has been a good experience for me, and I feel lucky to be a leader for this team."
Beyond her talent and years with the Crusaders, Hopps' leadership is aided by her considerable experience. Hopps plays for the Clearwater Bullets, an accomplished AAU travel team. Only one other Crusader, D.J. Evers, competes in travel ball. In comparison, Seffner Christian has two starters who have never played softball before.
"As someone who plays all year long, it was hard for me to understand why some of the younger players didn't know some real basic stuff," Hopps said. "But things have started to come together."
Despite their inexperience, Holmes believes the Crusaders can match last year's run to the region final. Seffner Christian opens up in the playoffs next Tuesday.
"We're young, but I think we can get back to the region finals again," Holmes said. "We'll have our hands full (in our region) with (Lakeland's) Sonrise Christian and Cambridge, but we definitely have the talent to get back."