Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

SPORTS>>No facade with JHS senior

By RAY BENTON
Leader sports editor

“Keeping it real” is a phrase most frequently used as a defense by someone who has just done something unpopular or uncouth. For Gabrielle Hart of Jacksonville High School, it’s just a way of doing things. Quiet and unassuming until engaged, direct and confident, but also pleasant, when engaged.

There’s a bareness to interacting with Hart, in both delivery and reception, and that’s part of why she has become one of the state’s premier hitters in high-school fastpitch softball.

She’s confident in herself on the diamond, so she’s confident that her coaches know what they are talking about. In other words, she listens, an attribute coaches, including Hart’s own at JHS, love.

“She’s a coach’s dream as far as I’m concerned,” Jacksonville assistant coach Phil Bradley said. “She’s very coachable, she’s a team player and she loves softball. She works hard on and off the field. That’s why she’s become a premier hitter. She’s had to overcome some setbacks, but she came back with a vengeance.”

The daughter of Greg and Patty Hart of Cabot, Gaby got a late start to the season due to injuries. She missed the first four games of the season with one injury. Upon returning, another injury sidelined her for two more games. Once she finally became a full-time player, she has turned in a record-breaking season. She has hit nine balls out of the park this season, which is a school record, has a batting average that soars to .519 and has driven in 39 runs. Hart has always hit for a high average, but the home runs are new. “I’ve never hit home runs like this,” Hart, admitted.

She was a speedy, dependable leadoff hitter last season for the Lady Red Devils. Now she’s a muscular cleanup hitter, but the transition didn’t happen by accident. It took dedication. Weight training twice a week, and changes in her day-to-day activities were employed to deliver a more polished and capable athlete.

“I work out at least twice a week,” Hart said. “I also changed my eating and sleeping habits. I can tell a big difference.”
Due to the team’s needs, she has moved from her natural position in the outfield to take up the crucial position of shortstop. According to Bradley, she has given full dedication to learning that position as well.

She will do anything you ask of her to help the team,” Bradley said. “We asked her to move to shortstop, and buddy she was all business about learning shortstop. She didn’t complain, didn’t say much at all. She never does. She does her talking with her bat and her glove.”

The dedication doesn’t stop there. Beyond her dedication to batting practice, fielding practice, weight training and diet, Hart is devoted spiritually as well. “Every time I go to the plate, before I step in the batter’s box, recite a scripture,” Hart said. “ ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’”

Hart’s emergence as a power-hitter, combined with her already-high batting average and above-average speed has attracted attention from several colleges. She has already decided to attend Butler County Community College in ?? Kansas.

Some of the realness shines through when she explains, quite evenly, why she chose the junior college. “I’m a better softball player than I am a student,” Hart said. “I didn’t qualify to play Division I without having to sit out a year. I plan to change that in college. I see how the dedication made me a better player. I can be dedicated to school like that too if I set my mind to it.”
Hart is so focused on giving her all, she’s knows precisely when she hasn’t, and it bothers her.
“It’s been a great year overall, but there are two times when I’ve left the field not completely satisfied with the effort,” Hart said.

With her senior year drawing to a close, and the Lady Devils taking a No. 2 seed and a contender’s status into this weekend’s state tournament, Hart knows that being completely satisfied with the effort is a must. She has seen her team tighten up its defense over the past couple of weeks, and expects good things when the playoffs arrive.

“We’re all trying to be more focused and make the best of the situation we’re in,” Hart said. “We’re pulling together. Our defense has gotten better and our practices are more strenuous. We know what’s on the line, and we want to win the championship.”

Hart remembers well how close Jacksonville came to the state title game last year, losing the lead in the last inning in the semifinals to eventual state champion Fayetteville. She believes carrying that memory into this year’s tournament will help her team.

“We talk about that all the time,” Hart said. “We definitely don’t want to feel like that again.”

Hart credits her father, who has coached her summer league team the Bashers for years, with most of her progression as an athlete, but also says she learned a lot from Bradley and head coach Tanya Ganey. “My dad has spent so much time working with me and teaching me. Coach Bradley is great. I’ve learned a lot from him and coach Ganey. I appreciate so much everybody who has helped me get better.”

Those people won’t be able to go with her to Butler County CC, but her greatest inspiration will. “Phillipians ??, that’s what I keep with me all the time. That’s what I remember and live by.”

Whether expressing gratitude, listing her awards and accolades, which includes two All-Conference and one All-State awards, or describing her underachievements, Hart states them all with the same plain-spoken frankness.

The phrase, “keeping it real” was never uttered, but one can be certain after speaking with Gabrielle Nichole Hart, that there was no façade.