Before Atascadero High’s Jessie Hufstetler was a go-to softball pitcher, she was a solid catcher and first baseman.
This season was different.
Already a proven slugger, Hufstetler became the face of the Atascadero softball team and stood out against some of the area’s best pitchers — such as Arroyo Grande’s Fresno State-bound senior Jill Compton and Nipomo junior and Division I prospect Courtney Cuzick.
Hufstetler didn’t strike out everyone she faced, so she kept her capable defense busy by inducing batters into hitting groundballs. And when her team needed a clutch offensive performance, she’d smash a walk-off, three-run home run — which she did in a 5-2 win over Paramount in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3 playoffs.
The San Jose State-bound senior did all she could for the Greyhounds. And for her efforts, which included a 1.18 ERA with 158 strikeouts in all but seven of the Greyhounds’ 165 innings, Hufstetler has been named The Tribune’s San Luis Obispo County Player of the Year.
Stacked with an eight-person senior class that first banded together in a 12-year-old recreational league in Atascadero, the Greyhounds produced one of the school’s best overall records at 25-4 to go along with a PAC 7 title, a school-record 16 consecutive wins to begin the season and the program’s first opening-round postseason triumph since 2005 under first-year varsity coach Darin Traverso.
It might be strange to think that a few months ago, the Greyhounds didn’t have an ace in mind.
Until Hufstetler came through.
“What I like about her play was that prior to her coming in as a senior, Atascadero was looking to resolve their pitching situation,” San Luis Obispo coach Mike Lee said. “She isn’t a true pitcher, but she’s a great athlete. She had the skills, fortitude and competitive drive to lead her team.”
Walking into the spotlight
There was a sense of panic after first-team all-county selection Jill Johnson and her 1.14 ERA graduated from Atascadero after the 2011 season. The second most-used pitcher was also a senior, while three others, including Hufstetler, threw no more than three innings.
It seemed all signs pointed to Hufstetler assuming the role of starting pitcher. Traverso — who had been the junior varsity coach before taking over the varsity team — figured the other seniors wouldn’t want anyone else.
Plus, Hufstetler would do anything for her team, evident by the fact that she moved from first base — a position she will likely play in college — to catcher in her junior season at Atascadero.
“We needed a pitcher, so I decided, ‘Hey, maybe I should step up for the team,’ ” she said. “I worked on it preseason and I just worked really hard throughout the week and it showed during my play. So I did what the team needed.”
She began working with Bill Hobbs, a pitching coach in the area who has helped develop the likes of Cuzick. Hufstetler, a right-hander, improved on her ball movement and was able to change speeds and levels to throw off batters.
“I think this group knew that they were really good but they also knew they needed a pitcher,” Traverso said. “So having had some experience, she took it upon herself — we didn’t go, ‘Jessie, you’re going to be the pitcher!’ — to begin to work with a pitching coach (before) the beginning of the season in early November, December. I saw tremendous amounts of improvement from where she started to where she ended.”
It didn’t take long for Hufstetler to find success, which coincided with Atascadero’s 16-0 start.
One of her first big tests came March 27, when the Greyhounds faced Compton of Arroyo Grande, the defending league champion. Hufstetler finished with a two-hitter with eight strikeouts and one walk in a 4-0 win.
“In my mind,” Traverso said, “that was her coming out game.”
Compton, last year’s county player of the year, still had another eye-popping season, thanks to her 1.19 ERA with 275 strikeouts in 182 1⁄3 innings. Her strikeout count was second in the county to Cuzick, who ended up with 305 after leading Nipomo to the CIF-Southern Section Division 5 semifinals.
“I’m kind of the underdog,” Hufstetler said, “because I’m not a pitcher pitcher. I haven’t been pitching my whole life, like some of these girls out here. I knew they’d have an advantage over me because they’ve been doing it so much longer. I knew I had to work that much harder to be better or just as good as them. It was hard to not be able to pitch as fast as them or get as many strikeouts, but I know I’m not like a strikeout pitcher. I got a lot of groundouts and popups.”
Her hitting was pretty good, too
It was natural to focus on Hufstetler’s pitching this season, considering she was stepping into an unfamiliar setting and found success.Prior to that, her hitting was brilliant.
In her junior campaign, she batted a team-best .512 with 44 hits, 49 RBI, 14 doubles and five homers.
Her senior numbers included a .506 average with 42 hits, 33 RBI, 10 doubles and a county-best seven homers. Her most significant long ball came in the home playoff game against Paramount. The score was tied at 2 when Hufstetler stepped to the plate with runners on first and third with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“At that last at-bat,” the left-handed batter said, “I just knew that if I didn’t hit this ball, it was going to be over. When I hit it, I stared at it for a minute. When it went over (the left-field fence), I didn’t understand it at first. I didn’t know why people were walking off the field. I thought we finished the inning. When they told me the game was over, I was kind of shocked. I didn’t know what would happen. That game was probably the best game I’ve ever played in.”
It wouldn’t be her last.
She’s heading to San Jose State, where she can be a threat in more than one position on the field.
ALL-COUNTY SOFTBALL TEAM
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jessie Hufstetler, Atascadero, P, (Sr.)
P — Jill Compton, Arroyo Grande (Sr.)
P — Courtney Cuzick, Nipomo (Jr.)
P — Andrea Reynolds, San Luis Obispo (Jr.)
C — Candace Fryckman, Nipomo (So.)
SS — Charlette Yracheta, Arroyo Grande (Jr.)
SS — Erin Pennington, Atascadero (Sr.)
SS — Jasmine Singh, Morro Bay (Sr.)
SS — Gianna Abatti, Nipomo (Jr.)
SS — Kellie Reynolds, Paso Robles (Sr.)
SS — Erica Chandler, San Luis Obispo (Jr.)
3B — Ashlee Reusche, Atascadero (Sr.)
3B — Jordan Robinson, Arroyo Grande (Jr.)
LF — Maurisa Dominguez, Arroyo Grande (Sr.)
CF — Laura Gorman, Atascadero (Sr.)
C — MacKenzie Messina, Atascadero (Jr.)
LF — Nique Mack, Atascadero (So.)
P — Krista Arndt, Mission Prep (Fr.)
LF — Jordan Martinez, Morro Bay (Sr.)
3B — Ashley Ruiz, Nipomo (So.)
P/1B — Jenna Rodgers, Paso Robles (Fr.)
3B — Carly McCall, Paso Robles (Jr.)
2B — Ashley Stevens, Templeton (So.)
Arroyo Grande — Ramie Castilleja (UTIL, Jr.)
Atascadero — Taylor Fant (1B/LF, Sr.)
Morro Bay — Allison Lamb (C/3B, Jr.)
Paso Robles — Jenna Wookey (P, Jr.)
San Luis Obispo — Brandi Crabtree (3B, Sr.)
Coast Union — Remy Corbet (SS/C, Fr.), Christina Plascencia (P/C/SS, So.), Sage Radecki (SS/OF, Fr.)
Mission Prep — Emily Ezzo (CF, So.), Bri Harvey (C, Sr.)
Nipomo — Saundra Renner (DP, Fr.)
North County Christian — Cheyenne Ricks (SS, Sr.). Kylie Bergquist (P, Sr.), Chloe Bergquist (C, So.)
Coastal Christian — Sevelyn Van Ronk (SS/P, Sr.)
CF — Kylie Gacad, Morro Bay (Sr.)