When Ali Shenefield takes the circle, opposing batters usually take a seat.
The Hernando High senior has amassed a whopping 361 strikeouts this season, the second-highest single-season total of any pitcher in the state since MaxPreps started compiling softball statistics in 2005. She needs just 18 more strikeouts to tie the state leader, Plant City ace (and travel ball teammate) Ashley Blessin.
What sets Shenefield apart is her experience, or lack thereof. She did not spend the bulk of her adolescent years taking pitching lessons or throwing on the travel circuit.
In middle school, Shenefield learned the proper way to grip a softball for each of her pitches from the late Ernie Chapman, who coached the Leopards for years. The mechanics — where to place her feet, her head, her hips when she fires towards home plate — were pretty much self-taught.
Shenefield did not think she needed those tools once she arrived at Hernando as a freshman. She planned to play third base — and nothing else.
Leopards coach Kevin Bittinger convinced Shenefield to throw in relief. Halfway through the 2016 season, Shenefield took on a bigger role, becoming a starting pitcher after a teammate went down with an injury.
Same thing happened in travel ball. Shenefield filled in for another injured pitcher.
“I put her in — and the rest is history,” said her travel coach Bill Hoopes, who took over at Admiral Farragut this season.
It took some time before Shenefield started producing eye-popping numbers. She had 287 strikeouts combined her first two seasons.
Because nearly every pitching instructor was miles away from Brooksville, Shenefield continued to coach herself.
She does not overpower hitters. She exasperates them, slaying them softly.
Shenefield trusts herself to know which of her four pitches will be most effective and tells herself exactly where she must locate that pitch for each batter.
Once Shenefield determines the answers, she is devastating because she routinely hits that spot. She attacks hitters as much with her intellect as with her arm.
“With Ali, it’s not all about God-given ability,” Bittinger said. “She has gotten to where she is by working harder than anybody out there.”
Last season, Shenefield showed off her dominance, recording 282 strikeouts while leading Hernando (27-3) to its second straight region final.
But the numbers were not enough to convince big-time colleges to offer her a scholarship. Shenefield signed with Rollins before the season.
“I do get overlooked a lot because I throw in the low 60s and I’m 5-6 and about 115 pounds,” Shenefield said. “That just makes me more determined.”
Shenefield already is the most accomplished pitcher in school history, holding single-season records for strikeouts (361) and shutouts (18), and career records for strikeouts (926), wins (78) and shutouts (45).
She learns about her stats from her mother, Heather.
There’s one more milestone to reach.
With another dominant performance, Shenefield could surpass Blessin as the state’s strikeout leader. Of course, to do that, Shenefield would have to get plenty of batters from four-time defending state champion Coral Springs Charter (27-1) to whiff in Thursday’s Class 5A state semifinal game.
“(Coral Springs Charter) is the champion,” Shenefield said. “It’s going to be tough. We’re the underdog. That’s the way it’s always been, for myself and the team. We seem to thrive in that role.”
State softball semifinals
Jackie Robinson Training Complex, Vero Beach
Admission: $9 advance, $12 day of; parking $10.
Class 5A: Hernando vs. Coral Springs Charter, 9:50 a.m. Thursday
Class 9A: Newsome vs. Coral Gables, 7:50 p.m. Thursday