Leader among leaders: Senior helped drive Dragons to historic 3-peat

0
376
The Hancock County Softball Player of the Year, Emily O'Connor. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

NEW PALESTINE — More than a decade ago, a large portion of the New Palestine softball team’s current juniors and seniors were winning a state championship together, the first of many to come.

Noticeably absent from that group was Emily O’Connor.

While so many current Dragons were starting out in the New Palestine youth league, O’Connor was watching from the sidelines. She wasn’t into it, at least not at first.

[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

“People assume everyone grew up with the youth league. I did not. I was very late. When everybody else was playing, I was sitting back, watching everybody,” O’Connor said. “Finally, my dad thought I missed out. He put me in Franklin for youth league first. It’s kind of weird how I started, but I ended up with everybody. It turned out I adjusted pretty well.”

She joined up with the New Palestine youth system in around 2008 and adjusted so well, she was the only current Dragons senior — out of six — to play regularly in their freshman year of 2016.

She quickly became an important piece of her high school team, hitting 40 career home runs and batting above .540 twice, including this year. After a sensational senior year that saw her at or near the top of almost every offensive category, O’Connor has been named the Hancock County Softball Player of the Year.

For someone who started late, and someone who doesn’t necessarily think she’s the best player on her own team, it wasn’t a bad way to cap her final year.

“Just to have my family congratulate me every single day and say how proud they are of me is just the world. I have such a great support system, and without them, I could not have been named Player of the Year,” O’Connor said. “It’s crazy just to think about out of all the teams, and even my team, I definitely don’t even feel like I’m the best. It’s crazy to think that other people think that.”

On a team filled with senior leaders, a team filled with all-county, all-conference and all-state players, O’Connor stood out a little but above the rest, even if she didn’t believe it.

When asked who the best player on her team was, the answer was simple.

“Literally anybody. Our practices, we’re having fun but we’re competing against each other,” O’Connor said. “I want to be as good as Mic (Jones) or as good as Jet (Jaylin Calvert), and I know they want to be as great as me. We all want to be where the other person is.”

But O’Connor was a “leader of the leaders,” her coach said, helping drive the Dragons to yet another state championship.

“We were fortunate to have a lot of really good players, but she stepped up this year where she was coming through with the big hits, big stats, and had a great year defensively, too,” coach Ed Marcum said. “That’s kind of what you want. You want your leader to produce. Big-time players come through in big-time situations, and that’s what Emily did for us all year.”

It’s the third straight year a Dragons player was named Player of the Year — Ashley Prange won it both in 2017 and 2018 — a testament to the culture of success the New Palestine program has cultivated.

It goes beyond the softball field, too.

“You’re always excited for your players, you’re excited for their success and their recognition,” Marcum said. “We always talk about being a role model, on and off the diamond, and I believe we’ve been fortunate the last several years to have that and Emily just continues that tradition.”

The platform she’s provided by playing the game that she lives is vitally important to O’Connor.

Her faith is extremely important to her, and the softball field allows her a place to act as a role model while also doing what she loves.

Her family focus on faith really started with her older sister, Abby, who played softball for the Dragons right before Emily got to high school. She has gone on mission trips to multiple locations around the world, for months at a time, something that has been inspiring to her younger sister.

“Personally for me, my faith has really driven me my whole life,” Emily O’Connor said. “Just to know that I’m given this platform on the softball field to really spread my love for the game and for God, I’m not comfortable with that anywhere else but the softball field, with the people I play with. That’s where I really live, with my leadership and everything.”

Part of O’Connor’s leadership is her positive attitude. Even when things are going poorly, whether individually or as a team, she does her best to stay positive.

That, also, is something she picked up from family. Her father, Aaron, was her coach for the majority of her younger years. He taught Emily that the only things you can control are your attitude and your effort.

That’s stayed with her through high school.

“As long as you keep those up, even if you get out, it’s not a bad game,” O’Connor said. “You can be disappointed, that’s OK, but do it off the field. You’re not here to bring others down. With every at-bat, I didn’t really focus on the outcome as much as the next person behind me.

“We’re not here to be mad. We’re here to spread love, and the way that I can spread love is through softball. We’re just living people’s dreams. I pray that we never take it for granted.”

The next step for O’Connor is the University of Indianapolis, where she plans to study exercise science and go into occupational therapy. She’s also looking into sports marketing or sports management as potential options.

Originally, O’Connor had committed to a D1 school, Eastern Michigan, to play softball. Shortly after their coaching staff left, the softball program was dropped entirely.

She de-committed and went “something like 0 for 24” in her next tournament. She thought her softball dream had died, that there was no way she’d get another offer.

Somehow, O’Connor flew under the radar. UIndy was the only school to offer her a scholarship, and they made her and her entire family feel wanted. The Greyhounds wanted the O’Connors to be a part of the program, so in the middle of her junior year at New Palestine, Emily O’Connor committed again.

She’ll room with Center Grove’s Piper Belden, a 2019 state champion herself, as she begins her college career close to home. That, too, was an important factor in O’Connor’s college decision.

She’s a self-proclaimed homebody. Her favorite activity is staying home and spending time with family, she said.

“I think I’m meant to be staying at home, really,” O’Connor said. “My sister, she went on mission trips to Hawaii, to California, for like six months, three months. I can not do that. I’m not that person. I can spread God’s love right here. I’m definitely made to be home.”

She will be home, for about two more months. Things are moving ahead quickly now as college approaches. Her freshman orientation was just two days after the state championship game, and she moves out on Aug. 21.

A new challenge awaits, but one thing will stay the same. She wants to be a champion again.

“Just to help my new team and just be happy with them,” O’Connor said. “It’s going to be crazy, it’s going to be scary, a whole new team and I’m the little freshman again. I just want to be happy and hopefully help them win a championship.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”By the numbers” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Emily O’Connor put up huge numbers on her way to being named Hancock County Player of the Year and a first-team all-state player. Here are some of her stats, with her ranking among county players. 

Batting avg.;.541;2nd

Runs scored;41;3rd

RBIs;50;2nd

Doubles;9;4th

Home runs;17;1st

Slugging %;1.128;1st

OPS;1.728;1st

On-base %;.600;2nd

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”All-county team” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

To see who joins New Palestine senior Emily O’Connor on the all-county softball team, jump inside to Page B2.

[sc:pullout-text-end]