NEW PALESTINE — In seasons past, Ashley Prange admits, she lived too much in her own head.
Difficult to describe exactly, the star shortstop is hesitant to call them nerves, but they were there nonetheless — at the plate and in the field — an uneasiness the New Palestine junior says, weighing her down. Stunting her potential.
“The expectations, they were a struggle for me,” Prange recalled while revisiting her previous mindset. “I guess I just didn’t want to let anyone down.”
A known commodity in the softball world long before she started her first varsity game for the Dragons as a freshman in 2015, Prange, like many, committed early.
Story continues below gallery
She was 14, only an eighth-grader when Division I collegiate athletics became a reality. But her age didn’t stop the Ohio State University recruiters from tracking her progress for nearly a year before they offered her a scholarship in April 2014.
Thriving with her former travel ball team at the time, Indiana Magic Gold, Prange was worry free, swinging her Easton Mako with authority. Within a few weeks, she cemented her future by verbally accepting the Buckeyes offer May 15 to play for Ohio State head coach Kelly Kovach Schoenly in 2018-19.
What followed, however, was something new. The pressure surrounding her commitment, while self induced, Prange explains, created a reluctance she couldn’t quite shake, though her numbers would voice otherwise.
Prange started as a true freshman at second base for the Dragons in 2014-15, hitting .432 with three home runs, 22 RBIs and 16 runs. The next year, her numbers dipped a bit, as the starting shortstop posted a .371 batting average with 21 RBIs. She scored 40 runs and belted five home runs.
Solid production for most, but not for Prange.
“I thought she had a really good freshman year. Her sophomore year, she struggled a little bit, and I think she would tell you that,” New Palestine head coach Ed Marcum said. “But she really got serious after that. She worked really hard and would go out and work on her own, too.”
She also rediscovered herself, and it led to a record-setting junior campaign, a Class 3A state championship and the 2017 Hancock County Softball Player of the Year award, as voted upon by the coaches and Daily Reporter sports staff.
“The expectation of being a recruit so young, it was just hard. I was expected to do big things, and I wanted to do big things. I had to learn how to balance it all,” Prange said. “But I got over it.”
More accurately, she obliterated it, setting two state records with 21 home runs and 67 runs batted in. She established new program standards for home runs for a single season and in a career (29).
Her 21 homers was the first time in state history a player has surpassed the 20 plateau, and she quickly move past Issy Hoyt’s program career record 26 set in 2016.
Pranged homered in 17 of the Dragons’ school-record 31 wins and only went eight games without an RBI.
Her first home run cleared the fence in New Palestine’s season-opening win against Southport 8-3 on April 4. Her final bomb put the team in position to secure the program’s fourth state title since 2004 en route to a 13-6 win against Kankakee Valley at Ben Davis High School on June 10.
The secret, if any, Prange said was as simple as see ball, hit ball. Treat every game for what it is, a game meant to be fun.
“I think that was pretty big for Ashley. It’s got to be tough to commit to a Big Ten school as an eighth-grader and you have all that pressure and people looking at you,” Marcum said. “Then to be able to come out and perform, she just decided to come out and stay relaxed this year, work hard and have a good time with it.”
Prange’s bond with her teammates and the support from her parents, Laurie and Scott, kept her grounded and helped her soar.
“You have to have someone to push you to be better but also for when you’re not doing so well,” Prange said. “I can’t thank my parents enough for that. They are always there and keeping me positive and believing in me when sometimes I don’t believe in myself.”
Laurie Prange, a former volleyball and soccer player at Warren Central, would routinely spend Sundays with her daughter on the Dragons diamond, lofting soft toss for batting practice or hitting grounders.
New Palestine football coach and strength and conditioning instructor Kyle Ralph pushed Prange in the weight room, but on the field, her teammates, especially sophomore Emily O’Connor drove her to be one of the state’s best.
O’Connor, who hit behind Prange, provided ample protection in the lineup, hitting a county-best .558 and crushing 14 home runs with 59 RBIs.
“Ashley doesn’t have the kind of year she had without O’Connor hitting behind her,” Marcum said.
The Dragons’ five team state records wouldn’t have transpired without Prange either, Marcum emphasized, along with a team chemistry void of egos or envy.
“I think because Ashley was so well liked and such a humble kid it didn’t create jealously. If she was cocky or arrogant, then I think that hurts your overall team,” Marcum said. “But everyone got along well and they worked hard together. It was kind of the key.”
Winning 23 straight games to end the season, New Palestine produced the most home runs in a single season (57), RBIs (355), runs scored (383), hits (465) and at-bats (1,064) to set state records in each category.
Prange’s 33-inch, 23-ounce Louisville Slugger Xeno was responsible for approximately a third of the team’s home runs, though the 5-foot-7 dynamo wasn’t looking for the big hit every at-bat.
“This year, I waited to get my pitch. A pitch I could actually do something with and not going up there just wanting to swing at any kind of strike,” she said. “I used to chase the first pitch all the time, so I really waited this year.
“My goal wasn’t to hit home runs, but it was fun. I wanted to hit the ball hard. That’s all you can ask.”
She began to find her longball prowess in the offseason, changing travel teams and playing for the Indiana Bandits U16 squad under the tutelage of Eddy Ketelhut.
Prange honed her swing while training with Ketelhut at his home facility in Michigan and began trusting her abilities both as a hitter and a fielder.
“I think it was just confidence. I get down on myself really quick, if I start to struggle. So mentally, just staying positive and believing in myself was the difference,” Prange said. “He changed my swing. I didn’t use to be a stride hitter. That little stride helped me get more power through the zone and more pop.
“Defensively, he helped a ton. I feel so much more confident now and trust myself. I was kind of nervous on defense. He helped a lot fundamentally.”
The result was being named a unanimous All-Hoosier Heritage Conference selection, 2017 First Team All-American by Fastpitch News and First Team All-State by the Indiana Coaches of Girls Sports Association in Class 3A/4A.
“She wants to be the best. And I think she knew she had to go out and get better, and that’s exactly what she did,” Marcum said.
A day after winning state, she stayed true to form.
Traveling with the Bandits, Prange was in Colorado this month for a tournament and played two games the Sunday after the state finals. A day later, she played in six games and has trips to Texas and California ahead before the fall travel ball season.
She took a break this month to cheer on graduated senior Elisha Barker during the ICGSA Indiana All-Star games in Carmel, a place she is projected be next summer as a probable Indiana Miss Softball candidate.
“It’s going to be crazy. I don’t know,” Prange remarked on her upcoming senior year. “I guess the goal is to get base hits, make solid contact and keeping up the work out of season and in season — the little things.”