Ashley Daugherty, dressed in full uniform, sat in the passenger seat of her family’s SUV sipping on a Jamba Juice smoothie with big news to report.
Her mother, Michelle, couldn’t wait for the interview and photo shoot they had arrived for to begin.
“Go ahead, get out and tell him the good news!” Michelle said, carrying the grin of a proud mother.
With the slightest resistance that you might expect from a 14-year-old, the Templeton High School softball phenom emerged from the car and shared the life-changing moment she experienced earlier in the day.
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“I committed to Texas A&M,” Daugherty said, with a smile matching her mother’s.
It was the cherry on top of her sundae of a softball season. Her ability to strike out batters at a staggering rate, hit for average and power and carry Templeton to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs as a freshman caught the eye of not only Texas A&M but also some of the best softball programs in the nation.
For all her accomplishments, Daugherty has been named The Tribune 2016 Softball County Player of the Year.
Daugherty has one thought when she is on the mound.
“I am going to dominate every batter,” she said.
And for the entirety of her freshman season, that’s exactly what she did.
Daugherty struck out 293 batters in 143 innings pitched, a rate of more than two strikeouts per inning. And forget leading the Los Padres League in strikeouts — which she did easily by more than double —Daugherty had the most strikeouts in the massive and competitive Southern Section. She also had the fifth most strikeouts in California and pitched less innings than the four players ahead of her. Her strikeout numbers also put her in the top 40 in the nation, according to MaxPreps.com.
Daugherty was able to dominate with a repertoire of six different pitches: a screwball, curveball, “rise,” “drop,” changeup and fastball.
“Speed isn’t necessarily important, even though I have been told I have speed,” Daugherty said. “It’s not necessarily important because if you just throw fastballs, it is going to be very hittable.”
Daugherty used a mix of speed and power to finish the season with a 0.44 ERA, one no-hitter and a 15-5 record with 10 shutouts.
At the plate, Daugherty was a terror, too. The 5-foot-9 righty led Templeton with a .443 batting average and hit three home runs from the cleanup spot.
Daugherty says her skills run in the family.
Michelle played college softball at University of California San Diego, and her dad, Mike, played high school baseball. Both of her parents are involved with SLO County Nitro, a fast-pitch softball travel team. Mike is a head coach, and Michelle is the president.
“My dad started working with me in the front yard when I was 5 years old,” Daugherty said. “He would just throw me fly balls and just get me acclimated to playing softball. My mom has been a great influence on me, too. She has coached me since I was little, itty bitty.”
This fall was the first time since she was 4 years old that she wasn’t coached by her parents. Well, on the field, at least.
“I still see them every night, and they still kind of coach me,” Daugherty said laughing.
But Daugherty did have a surrogate family member on the Templeton coaching staff this year. Henry Valaau, a long-time Cuesta coach who Daugherty has known and been coached by since she was 9, took over this year as the Templeton head coach.
“I call him my uncle Henry,” Daugherty said. “He’s a really great coach, and I think Templeton softball is really blessed to have him.”
Valaau and Daugherty led the Eagles to a 19-7-1 overall record and a trip to the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs. No other team in the county made it past the first round.
The Eagles’ final win showed exactly why some of the top programs in the nation like Washington, Oregon, Ole Miss and Cal State Fullerton were recruiting Daugherty. In the team’s second-round playoff game against Barstow, Daugherty threw a complete-game two-hitter with 13 strikeouts and capped it with a grand slam for a 9-0 win.
She had her pick of schools, but eventually Daugherty decided the prospect of playing for a coaching legend in the SEC was too good to pass up.
By her own admission, Daugherty never thought she would end up in Texas. But after visits to all of the other schools, the Aggies stood out.
“I took a visit, and I fell in love with it,” Daugherty said of her trip to College Station. “It was awesome, and the coaching staff is just amazing, unlike any other coaching staff. It was never a dream school of mine till I went out there.”
Led by five-time Conference Coach of the Year Jo Evans, who has been head coach there since 1997, the Aggies have consistently advanced to the regional round of the NCAA playoffs and finished this past season ranked in the top 20 while playing in the stacked SEC.
“My goal since I was little was to get a scholarship to a Division I college, and I have accomplished that. My next goal was to win the Women’s College World Series,” Daugherty said. “That’s where (Evans) is going.”
Daugherty said that her early verbal commitment to Texas A&M is a reflection of the the current state of the NCAA, with some players committing to schools as early as seventh grade. That doesn’t mean she will slow down.
“I have seen girls who commit and stop working,” she said. “And by the time they get to UCLA or wherever they are going, it’s like, ‘But you are the same as you were three years ago.’ My goal is to continue working hard, and by the time I get to Texas A&M, I want to be way better than I am right now.”
During her trip to Texas A&M, Evans told Daugherty — whose pitches topped out at 62 mph this season — that she should be in the 65 mph range when she arrives on campus in 2019. Daugherty told her she would be throwing 67.
With her impressive track record so far, it’s hard to doubt her.