With the spring sports season finally over, two of the most versatile and talented female high school athletes in the Tri-Lakes region are primed to face one of the most important summers of their careers.
Reeds Spring High School’s Izzy Erickson and Forsyth High School’s Emily Shipman figure to be two of the most-watched softball players in all of southwest Missouri, with their college plans hanging in the balance.
They are virtual bookends on the high school softball scene, the top individual players in two separate seasons: Erickson and the Lady Wolves play in the fall, with Shipman and the Lady Panthers playing in the spring season.
Both have college offers in hand, but there may be bigger things – and better fits – on the horizon for both.
To their credit, both are honest about the pressure that is at hand, and both are eager to see where they stack up as they play on elite-level summer teams.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but I feel like it’s going to be a good pressure,” Erickson said in the immediate aftermath of the Class 3 state track and field meet in Columbia a couple of weeks back.
Shipman had similar thoughts a couple of weeks after Forsyth lost in the sectional round of the spring playoffs.
“It’s a good feeling,” she said. “It’s good motivation, and a lot of the girls I’m playing with are in the same boat.
“We’re all going in the same direction, trying to do the best we can to get to where we want to go.”
SHIPMAN A RARE TALENT
Shipman has played for the Hot Shotz program out of Branson since the start of her summer softball career, at age 8, and will also suit up for KC Prime this summer as she pursues her college dream.
She said she has some offers in hand, ranging at all levels of schools, but is waiting to see what the summer brings as she searches for the perfect fit.
“I’m looking for a family for four years, whether that’s D-I or NAIA, it doesn’t really matter to me,” Shipman said.
“I’m looking for a competitive team, but also someplace that will help me grow as an athlete and a person for four years.”
Shipman has made a name for herself as a catcher, but is open to playing wherever she can get a spot. At Forsyth, she also has pitched, and she said she can play outfield or even be a utility player in college.
Forsyth coach Collin Lyerla tells a story about Shipman drifting out to shortstop during a batting practice session, where the showed the instincts and quickness needed to be a dominant player at that position.
If you show up early to a Forsyth game and watch as the team takes infield, you’ll like hear some “ooohs” and “aaahs” when fans see Shipman firing the ball around the infield, on a line and with perfect placement from behind the plate, without coming out of her crouch.
“It’s incredible, from a talent perspective,” Lyerla said. “Her ceiling is really, really high.
“With all that hype, she still works so hard. That is the difference-maker. With a lot of high school kids who have that potential, you see them rely on that and not push themselves as a player.”
That’s all the more remarkable when you consider the medical “experts” who declared her career as a catcher to be over after a knee injury – and subsequent surgery – she suffered as an eighth-grader.
Her return to top form has served as a form of redemption.
“I think that definitely pushed me to be a better athlete, and it made me come back stronger,” Shipman said.
“I think him saying that I couldn’t catch again just made me want to catch more.”
Shipman said she is driven to become more dominant and make a name for herself as one of the best catchers around. She models her game after Kansas City Royals catcher Salvador Perez.
“I’m looking to be more competitive,” she said. “There are a lot of great catchers out there, and I’m just trying to be the best. I want to keep improving on my pop-to-pop time and become more accurate.
“I’m just trying to do what other catchers don’t do.”
Shipman’s numbers so far in her high school career have bordered on ridiculous. As a junior for the Lady Panthers, who finished 22-4 and spent time near the top of the state rankings all spring, she hit .644 with 58 hits – 25 for extra bases – four homers, 53 RBIs and 51 runs scored in 28 games.
Shipman had at least one hit in 27 of 28 games, with 11 two-hit games, nine three-hit games and one four-hit game.
“I try not to think about it,” Shipman said of the stats she has put on the board. “I just try to focus on making contact, and that has worked so far. I try not to pay attention until the end.
“I look at things that I can get better at. I compare them to last year, and it’s all about improving. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Even more remarkable? In 104 plate appearances, she struck out twice.
Her reaction to one of those strikeouts, in a late-season game against eventual state semifinalist Mt. Vernon, showed her dedication to getting better and her desire to be as perfect a player as she can be.
“She went over and hit 150 balls off a tee,” Lyerla said. “No one had to tell her to do that, but she was trying to change her perspective and approach on those high pitches, because she found herself chasing them. She decided to do that.
That doesn’t happen with a high school athlete.
“Anytime anyone is wanting to improve on anything, for them to identify what they need to work on, and then do it without being told, those are life skills that you don’t teach a kid. They either have it, or they learn the hard way and then adapt.”
Lyerla said those around the Forsyth athletic program compare Shipman to former Panthers’ baseball player Jay Kaufman, who just wrapped up a storied college career at College of the Ozarks. Both are players who use any form of adversity as a chance to push themselves and teammates to get better.
Lyerla said it is sometimes a challenge for himself as a coach to work with a player who knows as much about softball as he does. He relayed a tale about Forsyth’s game against Hollister in the regular season this spring, as an anecdote for how good Shipman can be.
After the game went back and forth throughout, Shipman came up with two runners on base in the seventh inning and the Forsyth up by one run.
Lyerla repeated over and over to Shipman about just trying to hit the ball hard, not about trying to hit a home run.
She did just focus on hitting the ball hard, and when she connected, the result was a home run that landed about 40 feet beyond the left-field fence.
“For me, to see that’s where she can be, just trying to focus on doing the game simply,” Lyerla said. “It’s that athleticism, her training, all the things she’s done to get her to this point.
“If she’ll just get out of her way sometimes, I think she has potential that she hasn’t even achieved yet. And that’s insane.”
ERICKSON READY TO TEST WATERS
Erickson plays her summer schedule with The KC Peppers, a team that has qualified for the Elite Select World Championship for the last three years.
In recent years, the Peppers have had players go on to play at Missouri, Kansas, Washburn, Saint Louis, Indiana State, Evansville and Missouri-Kansas City.
Erickson will play on some big-time stages this summer. She went from the state track meet straight to a tournament in Lee’s Summit.
The Peppers will play in the Top Club Invitational, an invite-only event showcasing the top teams and players in the Midwest, in Norman, Oklahoma, later this month, and the Louisville Slugger IDT in Boulder, Colorado, in July.
Erickson tweeted a photo last fall from inside the softball locker room at the University of Central Missouri when she was there on a visit.
She is putting much of her faith in her summer-league team to help her find the right college landing spot for her.
“This team has constantly been pushing me already, to make me improve and play to the best of my abilities,” Erickson said. “They have a goal for me and are setting standards for me, that I have to meet. It’s really been pushing me and has been great for me.
“The amount of things they have already helped me accomplish have been extraordinary.”
Another thing that can be called “extraordinary,” or even “sublime,” are the numbers put up by Erickson, both as a pitcher and at the plate.
She already holds the Reeds Spring records for career strikeouts, single-season strikeouts, single-season batting average, single-season home runs and career shutouts.
As a junior, Erickson struck out 230 hitters in only 117 1/3 innings, finished with eight shutouts and had a .459 batting average at the plate.
As a sophomore, Erickson struck out 185 hitters in 117 innings of work, finishing with a 1.44 ERA. Offensively, she drove in 29 runs and finished with a .570 average.
With Erickson’s speed – she medaled as part of two Reeds Spring sprint relays at the state track and field meet and qualified for state in two other events – she could make a big impact at several positions on the softball diamond.
But her first love is pitching.
“My goal is to pitch in college, but I’m doing pretty much what will fit me the best,” Erickson said. “I am pretty open to anything.”
It’s easy to envision Erickson patrolling center field for a softball team at about any level, and she has the quickness and reflexes to make a natural move to the middle infield.
She said the Peppers have helped her to look at things from the perspective of college coaches and recruiters, which has led to an open mind about where she may play in college.
“That has helped me a lot, and that’s why I’m a lot more open to things, because there two different ways that coaches look at me,” Erickson said.
“So there are two different sides, I guess.”
Erickson said her coaches – both in high school and in summer ball – have her working on all aspects of her game to help her become a more well-rounded player.
“Mental approaches, not that I’ve ever had a struggle with mental approaches, but we’re coming up with ways for me to approach things a lot differently,” she said.
“And we’re working on pitches, baserunning and hitting. So it’s pretty much all around, literally with every part of my game.”
Erickson said she hopes to have a decision on her college future by the time the high school season starts this fall, but finding the best fit is more important than meeting some self-imposed deadline.
“That’s another thing that the Peppers are really good about, they are guiding me into a good college that will fit me well and I will be happy with,” she said.
“They want to help me make the best decision that I can.”
So over the next few weeks, it will all be about that “good pressure” and making an even bigger name for herself with her summer team.
“They’re getting me a lot of exposure … it’s going to be a big summer,” she said.