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The complete maturation of a championship team often includes enduring a heartbreaking setback along the way to gain experience and sharpen resolve for future glory. Two years removed from its national title game loss to Hawaii Pacific, the Valdosta State softball team finished what it started with a 4-1 victory over UC San Diego in the Division II National Softball Tournament title game held in Louisville, and a local athlete played a key role.
All-American senior second baseman April Hutchens, a Riverside-Brookfield High School alum, helped the Blazers capture their first-ever softball national championship.
"My sophomore year, I think maybe we didn't know what it took to win [a national championship]," Hutchens said about the 4-3 loss to Hawaii Pacific. "This time around was just different. The girls had a relentless drive to win. We had eight seniors and really good team chemistry. It's an incredible feeling."
Boasting a gaudy 58-5 record and four All-Americans on their loaded roster, the Blazers had talent to burn this season. However, perhaps no player more than Hutchens epitomized the team's new found true grit to round off their championship-caliber ability.
"In my opinion, April is the best second baseman in the country," said Valdosta State coach Tom Macera, the winningest coach in the program's history. "She was our team captain, a low key kid who led by example. Defensively, she's phenomenal. I kind of looked at her like Pig Pen [from the Peanuts cartoon] because she was always diving for balls and getting her uniform dirty to make great plays."
While the book on Hutchens had been air tight glovework, her beefed up bat this season solidified her All-American selection. The Riverside native started all 63 games, hitting .302 with 51 hits, 28 RBIs and 37 runs scored. In the D-II World Series game leading into UC San Diego, Hutchens crushed a key three-run triple powering Valdosta State past previously unbeaten Kutztown 8-2.
Hutchens cited the Blazers' collective spiritual strength as an anchor for success. "Every week, we had a devotional prayer service before practice," she said. "Our team was so caring. We prayed together about anything and for everyone not just us. It's the best feeling in the world to have such a close bond with people you care about."
In that regard, Hutchens was also blessed to have her family watch the World Series in person. Her younger sister, Jessie, another former RB softball star, relished the experience.
"I drove from Virginia to Louisville to see April play and our whole family was there which was really cool," said Jessie. "April was so excited to see us she started crying. She played with so much energy and passion. It was inspiring to watch her play so well."
Like April, Jessie holds high aspirations for her burgeoning softball career at the collegiate level. After a difficult freshman season at Radford, she showed marked improvement this year by hitting .263 (.367 in conference), with five home runs, 23 RBIs and 11 runs scored. She also performed well in the clutch, providing several game-winning hits en route to second team All-Big South recognition. Not bad for the 5-foot-9 first baseman/utility player who hit .221 for the Highlanders in 2011.
"It's been decent so far and I hope to play better [the next two years]," Jessie said about her time playing for the Highlanders. "I took on the ultimate freshman role probably too much when I first came here. It was an adjustment playing Division I softball. Everybody [here] was basically the superstar on their high school team. The time commitment is a lot more. I'm encouraged because my sophomore year went better."
Led by coach Mickey Dean, the Highlanders finished 34-21 with notable victories over Florida State and UC Santa Barbara. Jessie, who is studying sports administration, appears poised for a breakout junior campaign.
"I love it in Virginia, love the mountains," she said. "Playing for coach Dean is great, and I'm excited about next season."
This summer, Jessie is back home working out and playing for the prestigious Beverly Bandits softball team. She's also playing some pickup basketball in the Elmhurst Summer League with her other sister, Meghan, a former UIC and RB basketball star who played basketball professionally overseas and now coaches high school basketball and softball.
During their stellar careers at RB, Jessie earned first-team all-state honors in softball among many awards, while April anchored Dan Hull's RB teams for several seasons behind the plate.
"April was a feisty player and a great leader," Hull said. "Jessie was a great natural athlete with a tremendous swing. Both of them played huge roles in making the RB program so successful."
So, who follows the Hutchens' sisters athletic exploits most closely? That answer is as easy as April turning a double play or Jessie slapping a double into the right-center gap.
"Our parents [Larry and Debbie] are our No. 1 fans," Jessie said without hesitation. "My mom always looks at our softball schedules and figures out the days she's off from work so she can come see us play. I don't think any of us would have achieved what we have or be where we are [today] without their love and support."
April will continue her studies pursuing a Master's Degree and pitch in on the coaching staff at Valdosta State next season, while Jessie is amped for another run with Radford. Adding even more local flavor to the mix, 2012 RB grads and softball stars Kiley Rusen and Becky Mantel, will play softball at Valdosta State and Radford next season, respectively.
Rusen hit .545 with 62 hits, 34 RBIs and 48 runs this spring for the Bulldogs. Mantel also had a monster season for RB, hitting .464 with 11 home runs, and 62 RBIs.
"I can't wait to play with Jessie," Mantel said. "It's going to be a big change for me, but I'm glad I'll know someone [there] in Jessie. I was really happy for April, too, winning the national championship. The Hutchens sisters are like a second family to me."