By Joseph Garcia
For every top softball team around the world there is one common denominator – an ace pitcher.
Super sophomore Samantha Junkin plays that role for Liberty Hill and is seemingly already a grizzled veteran, having pitched in so many pressure situations, including in the state semifinal game last season vs. Henderson.
Sami, as she is called, as of April 15 has recorded 149 strikeouts, possesses a 1.41 ERA and has been solid at the plate with 17 hits, including one home run, and 22 RBIs. She entered Tuesday’s game vs. Lampasas with a 19-1 record in the circle.
“Sam (Junkin) has done a great job the last two years,” said Liberty Hill Coach Charice Hankins. “She gained a lot of playing time last year, which gave her a lot of valuable experience and (she) brought that into this year and turned it into confidence. She pitched all summer and got as much softball in as she could. She is driven and has many goals for her high school career – and wants to play at the next level – so she stays focused and has her vision on getting back to the state tournament.”
Junkin, only 16 years old, has a variety of pitches, which she slings at different speeds and all of which dance around the strike zone, making her lethal. She tries to keep batters off balance and guessing.
Her game has evolved from primarily getting batters to pop out and ground out, to power pitching that can fan the most experienced batter. She still has the ability to force would-be hitters into flying or grounding out, but the added dimension of being able to strike out batters – usually a plethora of them – has made Junkin one of the best pitchers in the area.
Pitching in the state tournament as a freshman last season assured her of her abilities.
“I am experienced with good batters (now), which helped a ton with my confidence,” Junkin said. “Now, I go into each at-bat with a winner’s attitude. I have confidence in all of my pitches and am not afraid of anyone anymore. I do all I can to get them out one way or another.”
Junkin said this season has definitely been a different experience than last year. After losing so many valuable players, only the team and coaches seemingly had the expectations of returning back to the state tournament.
As has been the goal since the season’s inception, the state tournament is where Junkin expects to end their season.
This group of girls can get it done, she said.
“No one expected us to be where we are now, especially not ranked No. 2 in the state and defeated 4A and 5A schools,” Junkin said. “We, the team, had no doubts in our minds of what we were capable of doing, though. It has been absolutely amazing and feels pretty awesome to be able to prove them all wrong. I have no doubt that we will be going just as far, if not farther than we did last year. Since day one it’s been our goal to make it back (to state) and this year win it all. I couldn’t ask for a better team.”
Known as a great team player, Junkin – like most ace pitchers – while only a sophomore considers herself a leader by virtue of her position. She is unflappable in pressure situations and lives for those moments.
The competitor in her does not let her feel otherwise. But she still knows her place when it comes to seniority.
“I love competing in general. And as a pitcher, I have lots of eyes on me. I love that,” she explained. “I love the pressure that comes with being a pitcher. I also enjoy being part of a team and a group of girls that I am so close with. They are like sisters I never had. (I feel like a leader) because I have the ball in my hand before every play of the game. I try to lead by example by doing my job on the mound, but I feel like I have the support of a team filled with leaders behind me. The seniors do a great job of keeping us in line and doing what we need to do.”
Call it suspicion or what you will, but Junkin has a set routine or ritual she goes through before every start. She also has a ritual she performs between every pitch.
“We have game day warm ups where we go through all of our pitches and then throw three innings,” she said jokingly. “After each pitch, I get the ball from Payton, take my glove off, put it under my arm, lick my right fingers, grab some dirt, wipe it off, put my glove back on and get ready to pitch my next pitch.”
A true athlete and competitor, Junkin was the starting point guard for the JV Lady Panthers’ basketball team and she loves swimming, fishing and hunting.
Junkin has her sights set on the immediate future and hopes the Lady Panthers can continue to compete well into May. While she hones her skills to take out batters at the plate, she is confident the rest of the team will do their part to push them to where they want to ultimately be – the State Tournament.
“All of the girls definitely have their own way of contributing to our success,” she said. “It’s going to take everybody, no doubt.”