Erin Gabriel retraces steps to South Africa

Erin Gabriel of Poland Seminary (Ohio) prepared for the ISF Junior Women's World Championship in South Africa by pitching in the basement of a doctor's office. "People think it's weird," she says. "But that's just what I have to do." Courtesy of ASA/USA Softball

Erin Gabriel is from Poland. No, not that Poland. Poland, Ohio. A town that boasts 3,000 people in one square mile of land. So you'll have to forgive Gabriel if she wants to frame her passport, a document she didn't need until USA Softball invited her to play on the Junior Women's National Team.

"I started getting told that I would never make it [out of Poland] when I was 8," Gabriel said. "No matter what happened, there were always people doubting me and telling me that I would never go anywhere with softball."

Not only is Gabriel the first girl ever from the state of Ohio to play on the Junior National Team, but she is also the only high schooler on this year's team, which won the 2011 ISF Junior Women’s World Championship in South Africa last weekend.

Gabriel will graduate from Poland Seminary this spring and enroll at Tennessee, where she will play softball for the Lady Vols.

Fresh off of her win as the starting pitcher for Team USA against host country South Africa, Gabriel sat down with ESPNHS to reflect on her triumphant journey.

ESPNHS: What was it like growing up in Poland, Ohio?

Gabriel: Poland is a small town where everyone knows everyone. We are all pretty close. I played with the same girls on the Poland Pride travel ball team growing up. We got back together in high school and won the state championship last season.

ESPNHS: What are some of the benefits of growing up in a town so small?

Gabriel: The fact that everyone knows everyone is the big benefit of living in a small town. You grow up with the same coaches and you grow accustomed to their ways. You know what to expect from people and what people expect from you. I really like that I'm familiar with everyone around me.

ESPNHS: From a softball perspective, what are some of the drawbacks of living in a small, Midwestern town?

Gabriel: You don't see as many teams and players. We have to travel to a lot of different tournaments because the tournaments in Ohio don't always attract the best teams. Also, the weather stinks in Poland. In the winter, I have to pitch in the basement of a doctor's office because I really don't have any other place to go. That's how I prepared for South Africa, throwing pitches on the concrete. People think it's weird, but that's just what I have to do.

ESPNHS: Next year, you graduate from high school and head to the University of Tennessee. What was the recruiting process like?

Gabriel: Mentally draining and extremely difficult. As an athlete, you're forced to choose your college at a younger age than all of your classmates. The process was a lot of fun, though. I liked meeting the coaches and going to different universities. I liked visiting places that I hadn't been before. I really considered Kentucky and Notre Dame before I picked Tennessee.

ESPNHS: After looking at UCLA, Washington, Kentucky, Notre Dame and Tennessee, what stood out to you about Tennessee?

Gabriel: The coaches sold me on the program. I really see them as my parents away from home. I loved the campus atmosphere, too. I loved seeing the boats on one side of campus and the football stadium on the other. It was so beautiful.

ESPHS: How much did it help that one of your childhood heroines, Monica Abbott, pitched for the Lady Vols?

Gabriel: Monica Abbott is one of my role models, but she didn't affect my decision at all. She has a lot of records at Tennessee, though, so it will definitely be hard to get in the books. Maybe I should have thought about that!

ESPNHS: Tell us about your feelings and emotions when you first found out you were going to wear a USA jersey.

Gabriel: I was overjoyed. It was a dream come true. As a little kid, you want to wear the USA jersey. That's why you go to practice every day. The first thing I did was call my parents. When you wear the jersey, you feel the people who came before you. You picture them and you remember how they represented the team. You hope that when you're wearing the jersey, you do it half as well -- if not better -- than them.