By DAVID HAYS
Lander Sports Information
GREENWOOD – Failing to make the middle school softball team as a sixth grader didn't discourage Hayley Leissner. She then became so determined to be a pitcher that she watched videos and practiced with her dad in their front yard.
As the pre-teen began to learn how to pitch, she set goals to pitch on both the high school varsity and college fast-pitch softball levels.
A decade later, Leissner can definitely say she reached her goals and that all the hard work has paid off.
Leissner was rewarded for a spectacular college softball pitching career when she received the Dr. Samuel C. Hodges Award as Lander University's Female Athlete of the Year at the 44th Annual Athletic Banquet on April 23.
The senior exercise science major from Jefferson, Ga., didn't go to the banquet expecting to win a major award.
Perhaps part humbleness and part knowing that Lander's senior-laden women's basketball team had reached the national Elite Eight just a few weeks earlier, Leissner wasn't prepared to hear her named called.
"I was very surprised. The only thing that I knew is that it (Female Athlete of the Year) is usually a senior. But I figured with the basketball team and the soccer team... I was completely shocked," Leissner said.
But as they began to announce the Hodges Award winner and described her as a "senior softball player," Leissner knew. "I am the only one (senior softball player)," she said, with a laugh.
Her accomplishments at Lander were many. An All Peach Belt Conference selection all four years, Leissner recently finished the 2012 season as Lander's all-time leader in career strikeouts (741) and pitching appearances (136).
Leissner is second in school history in shutouts (18) and third in innings pitched (702.2). As a junior, she broke her own school record for strikeouts in a season (226).
Leissner finished this season with an overall record of 13-14 with eight losses by just one run. She posted a 1.33 earned run average and had 151 strikeouts in 173.1 innings pitched. She placed third in the Peach Belt in innings pitched, fourth in strikeouts and fifth in earned run average.
"One of my teammates was filming me (at the banquet)," Leissner said, with a laugh. "Maybe they knew. I was just really shocked. But I was also extremely happy and honored that I was nominated (for the award), and then picked.
"It feels really good that I did enough throughout my career that people noticed. I have always worked hard. Awards are really nice. But I never expect to get anything like that. It just feels really nice that people thought enough of me to nominate me and choose me."
Leissner didn't make the middle school team until she started pitching in the seventh grade.
"When I was little, I had a couple of goals," she said. "My grandpa told me that if you have a goal, you write it on front of a mirror because you will look in the mirror every day.
"My first goal was to pitch varsity in high school. In Georgia, you can't play varsity until you are in the ninth grade. You only have four years of eligibility. When I got that one (goal), I marked it off. And then my other (goal) was to pitch in college. And I marked that one off."
Leissner pitched two perfect games during a stellar junior year at Jackson County Comprehensive High School in Jefferson.
That high school split and Leissner spent her senior year at the new East Jackson Comprehensive High School in Commerce, Ga. But she didn't miss a beat, collecting 305 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 175 innings while posting a spectacular 0.24 earned run average. The ERA was a state record.
She pitched a perfect game in the region tournament against Washington-Wilkes when she struck out 20 of the 21 batters (the other hitter grounded out). Two days later, also in the region tournament, she pitched a no-hitter against Morgan County with one walk and 14 strikeouts.
In addition to numerous player of the year and All-State honors, Leissner was named as the Wendy's Heisman Award winner for her school and was crowned as East Jackson's first-ever homecoming queen.
She was also an honor student who was ranked 16th in her class of 445.
Among her inspirations growing up was Jennie Finch, one of the all-time greatest women's fast-pitch softball pitchers.
"I actually met Jennie Finch," Leissner said. "The U.S. team was doing a tour and she signed a poster for me. I was little, and it was amazing. Michele Smith was an inspiration for me as well."
As a Lander freshman in 2009, Leissner posted a 2.67 ERA, a then school-record 190 strikeouts in 191.2 innings, and a no-hitter versus Georgia Southwestern. She walked only 37 of 772 batters faced.
Her won-loss record improved from 10-23 as a freshman to 17-6 her sophomore year, and she lowered her ERA more than a full run to 1.43.
She was also continuing to learn how to pitch.
"When I first came here (to Lander), all that I had in my head was I have to throw hard and strike people out," she said. "But I learned that strikeouts weren't the most important thing because when you throw hard, if they hit it, it's going to be hit very hard.
"So I learned how to work the batters, how to place pitches, and how to pitch to certain situations. If you know they are bunting, throw something high and let the infield do the work."
But strikeouts were still an important part of Leissner's arsenal, and she broke her own school K record with 226 as a junior.
Her junior year was also special because she was reunited with her younger sister and former high school teammate Kegan Leissner.
"I loved playing with my sister," Hayley said. "She played jayvee in eighth grade when I was in the 10th grade. The jayvees and varsity had practice together. When she moved up to varsity, she played center field and I was pitching. I always liked to turn around and see her there in center field, like a sister thing where we have each others' backs."
A torn ACL ruined Kegan's senior year of high school, but she was still able to sign with Lander. "(Brandon) Duncan had seen her ability to play and still wanted her," Hayley said of the former Lady Bearcats coach.
The younger Leissner has been limited to a combined 19 at-bats in her freshman and sophomore seasons. But they were still collegiate teammates and "I even live with her at school," Hayley said.
Leissner said she has enjoyed all her teammates, forming special bonds with her battery mates.
"You have to build a relationship with your catchers. I was able to do that really well last year with Rachelle Adkins," she said. "We ended up being best friends. She is probably one of the best catchers that I have ever thrown to. She knew how to play the game, how to read the batters, and had the most amazing arm that I have ever seen. When I was down, she pushed me. When she was down, I pushed her. We worked really, really well together.
"This year, we had a freshman (Melanie Davis) come in as a catcher and a returning sophomore (Sarah Fuller) who was kind of Rachelle's understudy. Sarah Fuller was the only one who caught me. Melanie Davis did an amazing job catching this year. I think she is going to be a great catcher. Sarah filled Rachelle's shoes very well."
Senior Day came April 15 and Leissner had a chance to beat perennial powerhouse North Georgia College & State University for the first time in her career during her final performance on the mound.
The result was a heart-breaking loss, but as with the rest of her career, no regrets.
"We were one out away (from victory)," Leissner said of Lander's 1-0 lead with two outs and nobody on in the top of the seventh inning versus 13th ranked North Georgia.
"I threw an inside pitch to the girl (Callie Fernandez). It kind of tailed in too much, so it hit her and she got on first. And then Pilar Harden, who we have played against each other since we were 11 or 12, we were always on opposite teams, we were on rival high school teams, and she came up. We battled about 10 pitches, and she ended up getting a hit to right field. The runner scored all the way from first."
The double tied the game at 1-1, and North Georgia won the game with a run in the eighth.
"We were one out away. It's tough to think about it that way. In the first game, we out-hit them and had fewer errors. In the second game, we were up against a pitcher (Jessica Coan) who was ranked nationally last year, and we proved that she was hittable. We played really well. We proved that we could compete with teams that are ranked nationally."
Although her pitching career may be over, Leissner doesn't want to be finished with the sport. She has one year left in school in the exercise science program and eventually plans to transfer to graduate school in physical therapy.
"I want to continue on, giving pitching lessons or helping to coach. I don't plan on softball ending. I have spoken to Coach (Tina) Whitlock, our new coach, and she does want some help. I would be willing to be a student assistant. I hope she can use me. I don't think I could step away from the game that quickly."
Leissner is optimistic for the Lady Bearcats program, including Tina Plew-Whitlock's arrival. She was hired in mid-April to replace Doug Spears, who retired with 829 career victories in 25 years (1982-2005, 2012). The Lady Bearcats were 26-26 in 2012, but only 4-16 in the Peach Belt.
"I think she will be a great asset for the team," Leissner said. "We have great team chemistry. I think she will be tough. But I think she will push us past .500. She has a lot of plans in store for us. I am looking forward to seeing where the softball team goes from there."
And after Lander, "I am applying everywhere for PT school," she said. "It would be nice to go to a school that has softball and maybe I could work with the softball team there as a graduate assistant. That would be ideal."
All in all, Leissner is pleased with her pitching career.
"It feels weird to be done, especially since I have been pitching since I was 12 years old," she reminisced.
"With one of my goals being to pitch in college, being able to pitch all four years with the results I had, I am just completely blessed. I don't have any regrets. There were a lot of girls and a lot of coaches who helped me along the way, and I am satisfied with how everything worked out."