Sometimes it takes special families making huge commitments and special mentors at the right time that lead to many of today’s success stories in life or on the fields and courts of sports.
Those aspirations along with years of hard work and dedicated commitments recently paid off and lifelong dreams came to fruition for a trio of former East Texas teammates.
Almost ten years ago, two East Texas young softball hopefuls, Tiarra Davis of Henderson and Jacksonville’s Katelyn Standley, trekked to Rusk to play summer select ball with a team called the Texas Pride, coached by Rodney Hugghins. The Texas Pride also had a local gal from Rusk named Sydney Littlejohn.
Now approaching the trio’s senior season of high school, the families have stayed in touch as each went their own separate ways in select ball — sometimes even playing against each other.
Although in three different East Texas towns, each shares lifelong bonds made in the early developmental years on the road at various state and national venues.
As 8-year-old members of the Rusk based Texas Pride, mentor Hugghins was always emphasizing having fun with the game and teaching the fundamentals the right way.
“I think the biggest thing that set these three girls apart from others is how much they loved softball and how much they wanted to play,” Hugghins said. “They wanted to be on the field every weekend, that’s just what they loved to do. They enjoyed practicing, playing and everything about softball. They’ve always been willing to put in the work that goes along with reaching the level they have reached.
“Another differentiating factor was the level of commitment from their parents. It’s a huge commitment of both time and money and their parents were willing to do whatever it took to let the girls reach their full potential.”
After a few early years with Hugghins and Texas Pride, the trio went their separate ways in select ball while leading their school teams to several rounds of playoff bids.
Now the trio is signed and sealed for the next level after each chose to sign national letters of intent with the teams of their dreams.
Davis, a summer member of Texas Bombers-Gold, signed with the Longhorns in Austin.
Littlejohn has been a key to the summer success of Texas Glory and the Rusk Lady Eagle elected to go to the Southeastern Conference and sign with the defending national champion Crimson Tide of Alabama.
Standley, a member of Texas Glory, held true to family-school ties and signed to play for Gay McNutt at Stephen F. Austin. Three generations of Standleys have graced the halls of SFA, beginning with Oran Cotton Whidden.
The one common bond was that when talking to all three, they each work back around to talking about family and the support through the years as well as key coaches and mentors.
Davis led the Lady Lions to the area round in 2010 while earning district Pitcher of the Year as a unanimous first team all-district selection.
As a Henderson sophomore, the crafty left-hander went 22-4, posting a hefty 1.31 ERA with 239 strikeouts pitching. At the plate Davis more than aided her mound efforts with a .547 batting average and wheels to boot stealing 22 of 24 bases.
After that sophomore year, in 2011 Henderson reached the regional quarterfinals and Davis received a second first-team selection in addition to District MVP, Tyler Morning Telegraph’s All-East Texas MVP, the TGCA All-State Team and a TSWA first team all-state selection. Along with her success on the mound and at the plate, each season the Lady Lions have followed the arm of Davis one step farther.
Last years’ Class 4A state finalist spot brought on more accolades. On the road to Austin last year Davis posted a 1.76 ERA with a 19-7 record while striking out 207. At the plate Davis hit at a .484 clip and was a perfect 12 for 12 in stolen bases.
A long list of other hopeful schools included Illinois, Baylor, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Kansas, Houston, Texas State, SFA and North Texas, among numerous other Division II and III powerhouses.
The Lady Lions will venture into Class 3A competition this season and hope to better their state finalist appearance into a state title. Henderson lost to Hudson 8-4 in the 4A finals last year.
Growing up a Longhorn fan, after a hopeful “ring-season” for Henderson, Davis will be living her dream.
“Ever since I first picked up a ball, I wanted to be a Longhorn softball player,” Davis smiled. “So when I noticed they were interested, I wasn’t focused on any other schools really.”
Early on, Davis did not really see herself as such a die-hard as everyone else did.
“Back then I thought of softball more as a fun sport that I made a lot of friends in,” Davis said. “When I was that age, basketball was more of my passion, but as I got older I noticed I was better at softball so I chose that route to pursue instead of basketball.”
Davis’ success on the softball field superseded her hoop dreams and mentors and family made lasting impressions along the way.
“I was fortunate to have a lot of good coaches growing up and all their words of advice are still so meaningful to me,” the Lady Lion all-stater added. “The biggest piece of advice I would say I learned is to play like it’s the last time you will ever play because it all can be taken away in a split second.”
All in all for Davis, it gets right back to her own 8-year-old approach with friendships.
“The friendships I have made in softball are ones that will last a lifetime,” Davis said. “I have become best friends with some of the girls I have played with so it’s just a great experience being around everyone.
“Sydney (Littlejohn) and K-Ro (Standley) are good friends of mine and I am so proud of their accomplishments and wish them the best of luck with their careers as softball players.”
From Rusk To Rolling Tide
Littlejohn has been another dominant player throwing and swinging and is proud to don the crimson and cream of the Tide in Tuscaloosa.
Leading the Rusk Lady Eagles into the playoffs for the past three seasons, Sydney has earned a room full of trophies and awards as have all three signees.
The 2011 season ended with a district and area title for the Lady Eagles, followed up with another district title and advancing to the area round last year.
Littlejohn had letters and calls from several schools, including letters from Mississippi State, Arkansas, Illinois and Northwestern State. She never really had thoughts of college when she first started out.
“Honestly back in those days (Texas Pride), my softball game was just for fun and just to get out of the house,” said Littlejohn, the two-time district MVP. “Back then I was just living in the moment and never thought of softball as my life like it is now.
“Never in my wildest dream did I think I would even get the chance to play softball at the college level.”
When she made her visit to Alabama, what was already a decision became her dream as soon as she saw the campus.
The summer was busy for Littlejohn and successful for the right-handed hurler as Texas Glory took fourth place at the ASA Gold Nationals after a runner-up spot in 2011 at the Premier Girls Fastpitch age 16U tourney. Littlejohn was also selected to Adidas Futures.
Last summer for the Glory she posted 59 innings pitched sporting a 1.53 ERA. With Premier Girls Fastpitch she threw another 49 innings with a 1.83 ERA.
“The SEC is full of great competition and I want to see what I can do against it,” Sydney said. “’Bama just feels like it’s the perfect place for me. I just know that it’s where I’m meant to be.
“I get butterflies in my stomach every time I go to the campus. I fell in love with it as soon as I stepped on campus and knew that it’s where I wanted to go.”
Awards and team trophies also follow Littlejohn into her final senior year, but the friendships over the years will be most remembered.
“I have met and became great friends with many girls in the softball world,” Littlejohn said. “There is some that I know there is no way I could live without and it’s always so great to see and play against Tiarra and Katelyn.
“They have been some of my closest softball friends and I know they are going to do amazing in college.”
SFA all the way
For Katelyn ‘K-Ro’ Standley, her aspirations were dead-on Nacogdoches-bound from the get-go, after visits to Kansas, Texas A&M and the University of Houston.
“I knew I wanted to play college ball since I started travel ball at 8 years of age, and knew I wanted to when I got to watch all the older girls playing,” Standley said. “I have been very blessed to play on very talented and well-coached teams in my softball career, beginning with Texas Pride.”
Currently a summer member of Texas Glory, Standley knew college exposure and playing in a larger venue was important, so she joined the Texas Glory organization from McKinney. Texas Glory is coached by Aaron Lusk and was one of 64 teams nationally that qualified and played in the ASA 18-U Gold National Championship tournament played in Oklahoma City this past July.
All three players have played with their respective teams in Colorado, California and South Dakota at the highest level of competition, including ASA and Premier Girls Fastpitch in Huntington Beach, Calif.
For the Lady ‘Jack signee, the best of the best was the 16-and-Under Premier Girls Fastpitch Nationals where Texas Glory-Naudin placed fifth.
Standley left the tourney at the top of the rankings in both 16U and 18U divisions for doubles with eight in a one week period, and ranked ninth in RBIs.
Standley was a freshman starter at Jacksonville, leading team statistics in several categories and was awarded team MVP and all-district honorable mention.
Her sophomore year was sacrificed in the books after transferring to Troup, but she came back strong last season for the Lady Tigers.
Standley was voted team Offensive MVP with a .602 batting average and a .658 slugging percentage. Pounding out 49 RBIs led to a 1.054 RBIs per game for the Lady Tigers. She added on five round-trippers.
Those numbers were awarded with district MVP kudos and she was named to the Tyler Morning Telegraph’s All-East Texas team. Troup was undefeated in district last season, going to the second round of the playoffs.
Former UT Tyler pitcher Sam Weeks is the Lady Tigers’ head coach.
“She is a former college softball player and knows how much sacrifice and dedication it takes to be successful at our game,” Standley said of her high school coach. “She is a great role model and inspiration for our team that teaches us to work hard and never give up no matter what the circumstances are.
“Not only does she coach us on the field, she helps us learn other life lessons off the field as well.”
Losing only two seniors from last years’ squad will have result in a roster with a lot of experience gained from last year.
“He is a great coach who inspires his players by believing in them and consistently reminding them of their ability to play the game,” Standley added about her select coach.
Continuing a family tradition by attending SFA, Standley was glad to get the signing behind her but excited about both the upcoming season and the next step.
“I am super excited to continue my softball career at SFA,” the projected catcher/third baseman said. “I am prepared to face both mental and physical challenges that I will be facing at Division I level.
“I look forward to playing with my travel ball teammates too (Taylor LeFlore and Brittany Lewis), who will also be incoming freshman players at SFA next year.”
Standley tried to wrap up her thanks to all that got her where she is with her step to the next level.
“I want to thank all of my family, friends, coaches, teachers and everyone else that has believed in me and supported me through this exciting time in my life, and their confidence in me has meant the world to me,” a teared-up Standley said.
“Most of all I want to thank my dad, Jeff Standley. He has been my hero, my coach and my main motivator. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
The first mentor, Hugghins, who groomed the trio for bigger things, is elated for the ladies.
“I’m really proud that I was able to play just a small role in introducing them to the game that became such a big part of their lives,” Hugghins said. “I have no doubt that they’ll all be highly successful on and off the field.”