Ashley Blessin worried about throwing strikes the first time she took the mound as a Little Leaguer nine years ago.
Now, the Plant City High pitcher gets batters to whiff at a record pace.
Out of a windmilling windup with a whipsaw finish, Blessin throws pitches that curve, dip and do pretty much everything but turn right on red. The opposing hitter typically takes a mighty swing.
Too late. The ball pops into the catcher’s mitt.
The scene plays out over and over. Blessin has 293 strikeouts this season, the second-highest total in the state. She is on pace to record a staggering 1,000 strikeouts in her career, something few area pitchers, if any, have done since the mound moved from 40 to 43 feet in 2006.
While Blessin’s right arm does wondrous things in softball, she does everything else left-handed.
Her father, Gary, taught to her throw right-handed in the back yard as a toddler.
“Everyone in the family was right-handed so I just assumed she was, too,” Gary said.
Ashley played basketball and soccer growing up. She even danced. Softball came later.
Her first pitching coach was East Bay’s Glenn Rodriguez. Ashley threw pitches that hit the dirt. A few sailed wide. Eventually, she hit the strike zone — and stayed there ever since.
Ashley became known on the Little League and travel ball circuit. One umpire told her father she was the best pitcher he had ever seen at that age (10 years old).
Once Ashley got to Plant City, she continued to impress. In the past three years, Ashley led the Raiders to three straight district titles, two region final appearances and the program’s first trip to the state semifinals in 2017.
Her dad played a role in the team’s rise to prominence. He became the pitching coach during Ashley’s freshman season.
This season, Gary’s role changed.
Plant City coach Ashley Bullion relocated to Jacksonville before the season started. The school’s administrators asked Gary to take over.
He knew parental predicament would come with the promotion. Still, he reluctantly agreed.
“I didn’t want to do it because of the dynamics of being in charge of my daughter’s team,” Gary said. “But there was only about two weeks to go before the start of the season and they needed to find someone fast.”
The coaching change did little to disrupt the team’s performance. The Raiders are 16-3 and have already clinched the top seed in next week’s Class 8A, District 6 tournament.
“It was a little different,” Ashley said of having her father as coach, “but he has always been my coach since I was little in Little League and travel ball and now I’m in high school.”
Ashley, of course, plays a pivotal role. She already has reached rock-star status at school. Baseball players want to see if they can get a hit off her. And the softball players that do get one in a game often post the accomplishment on YouTube.
That umpire who was so impressed with her as a Little Leaguer still keeps tabs on her performances. A few weeks ago, he drove nearly 50 miles to personally deliver a cookie cake after Ashley threw a perfect game.
Regardless of what happens this season, whether Plant City makes it back to the state semifinals or not, Gary said his coaching tenure likely is done after this season.
“I want to be able to watch her in college and that will probably be too difficult to do with the schedule if I’m still coaching,” Gary said.
Ashley committed to Marshall two years ago and signed with the school in November. She had interest from programs in bigger conferences such as UCF and USF, but was content with sticking with the Thundering Herd.
Gary said a big reason some of the powerhouse programs shied away is her height, or lack thereof.
Ashley, who is 5 feet, 4 inches, said that often works to her advantage.
“Sometimes I do believe that I’m underestimated by people,” she said. “That just makes me want to work that much harder to prove them wrong.
“I know I may be shorter than the average pitcher, but I have worked hard over the years to be the best at what I know I do best, which is spot my pitches, spin the ball and change speeds.”
Class 8A-6 at Plant City
Monday: No. 4 Riverview vs. No. 5 East Bay, 7
Tuesday: No. 2 Durant vs. No. 3 Bloomingdale, 4; No. 1 Plant City vs. Riverview-East Bay winner, 7
Thursday: Final, 7
Contact Bob Putnam at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.