There is only a short list—a handful or less, Northwest High School softball coach Mike Horton surmised—of softball pitchers who have been able to lead their teams to state championships as freshmen. But current Jaguars junior hurler Amber Yuille is one of them. Her leadership has only grown in the two years since and it’s become an invaluable intangible that’s played a major role in keeping Northwest in the hunt for another state title—the Jaguars fell to Anne Arundel County’s Severna Park in last year’s rain-delayed state final and should again be in contention this spring.
“(Winning states) was a huge accomplishment for (Yuille),” Horton said. “Especially because there was also a freshman at first base and a freshman at third base. But her competitive nature, coupled with her leadership, it’s something I really admire as a coach. Seeing how she interacts with all her teammates, how they look up to her and respect her and how they feed off her, you don’t get to coach players like that very often.”
Most high school athletes of Yuille’s caliber, especially those playing positions as integral to their team’s success as hers, are not so team-oriented, Horton added. Through 10 games, Yuille has struck out 100 batters and held opposing lineups to a .154 batting average en route to a 1.58 earned run average.
But one person cannot win a softball game alone. Yuille is well aware that to perform at her best, and for the Jaguars (10-2) to prevail at the highest level, she needs her teammates’ support, in the field behind her and offensively at the plate. And so she’ll never tear someone down for making a mistake—even if it puts her in a precarious position in the pitcher’s circle—and she’s first to admit her own, Horton said. And that goes a long way.
“Errors happen, they’re part of the game, and when someone makes a mistake, she’ll go right to that person when the inning is over and say, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll get it next time around,’” Horton said. “When she makes a mistake, she’ll come right into the circle and say, ‘That was on me.’ She really strives to pull everyone in the same direction. She knows there’s no point in bringing anyone down, she only tries to pick them up. When she was a freshman, she was the same way and even the older kids fed off it.”
Though Northwest returned a solid core of players who were all members of the 2017 state champion squad, including lone senior Alex Karamihas and juniors Megan Ridenour and Kaylah Qassis—who Horton said have also taken on more prominent leadership roles alongside Yuille—the Jaguars also graduated five seniors a year ago.
Among them, one of Montgomery County’s strongest shortstop-second base duo. But Northwest didn’t miss a beat defensively, thanks to the arrival of two freshman standouts: shortstop Jillian Zirkle, who stepped in for fouryear starter Karly Stanford, and second baseman Addison Levine.
Horton, who enjoys traveling around to support his players during their travel ball seasons over the summer, said he’s been impressed with how smoothly Zirkle and Levine have transitioned from playing 13-under or 14-under essentially to 18-under.
The two middle infielders also gained valuable familiarity with one another and each other’s tendencies while working with Horton—taking tons of reps—over the summer and into the fall.
“We started off in July and worked all the way until it got called and then we went into the weight room,” Horton said. “I wanted to make sure they were situated prior to March 1 so we could hit the ground running. After (Karly and Chloe Hickman) graduated, I wasn’t sure how we could replace them, but there hasn’t been a drop-off at all.”
In fact, there’s no real drop-off within the Jaguars’ batting order in general. Led by junior Jalyn Durand, who is batting .550 with 17 runs batted in and 19 runs scored, five players—Qassis (.487), Yuille (.467), Zirkle (.364) and Karamihas (.350)—are batting at least .350. Qassis has added 14 RBI and 19 runs, Yuille has driven in 17 runs and scored 15 and Ridenour (.344)
has contributed 11 RBI and 10 runs scored.
Northwest’s two losses—to Frederick County power Urbana High and Montgomery County foe Montgomery Blair—have both been by one run. Experiencing those competitive situations should pay dividends come playoff time, Horton said.
“I have absolutely no desire to be undefeated going into playoffs, that’s just an added pressure,” Horton said. “We take something from our losses; focus on what we need to do better. We need to make sure we’re taking advantage of our opportunities.”