With a soft spot for baseball from a hotbed for softball, Sydney Sherrill makes her way to FSU
There is plenty that sets Sydney Sherrill apart from most college freshmen, even from the small subset that will play NCAA softball. And not just that she answered to the nickname "Squid" almost as often as her given name growing up on the ball fields of Oklahoma.
Sherrill arrives at Florida State this fall with an athletic résumé few peers can match. The Gatorade Softball Player of the Year in Oklahoma as a high school senior, she is among the new arrivals with the most potential to influence the college game next spring. While many of her peers made the most of summer vacation, Sherrill took her hacks against the Japanese national team as a member of the U.S. junior national team during the World Cup of Softball. She was in Florida later that month, an alternate for the gold medalists in the WBSC Junior World Championship.
The Seminoles, stopped short of Oklahoma City and the Women's College World Series a season ago despite hovering around No. 1 for much of the spring, can reload with the help of a player who not only played her final high school games at Hall of Fame Stadium, host to the Women's College World Series, but also hit home runs in the semifinal and final en route to a state title. Few can claim that.
Nor are some of Sherrill's life experiences like the ones most teenagers take with them to college. She lived through the fear that all residents of her hometown of Moore, Oklahoma, felt on the afternoon of May 20, 2013, when a tornado flattened swaths of the city, killed more than 20 people and injured hundreds. She was raised on the sound of tornado sirens in an area prone to such storms, but was too young to have experienced another even more violent brush with the real thing in 1999. She remembers her mom picking her up early from school that May day in 2013 and seeing the look of fear on her face before the two of them retreated to the cellar.
"It was just a horrible day," Sherrill recalled. "Crazy, weird, life-changing almost."
By skill and background, Sherrill walked her own path. But when she steps onto the field for the Seminoles, she will share with a great many of her peers a background in the other major bat-and-ball sport in this country. That she grew up in the shadow of softball's unofficial capital -- just a short drive north from Moore to USA Softball's offices at Hall of Fame Stadium, or south to two-time defending champion University of Oklahoma's campus -- doesn't change that.
"Honestly, I wasn't into softball when I was little; it was baseball," Sherrill said. "I didn't even know about the national team or softball being in the Olympics or anything like that until probably four years ago. Growing up, I just never was into softball."
Baseball is a well-trod path to the upper reaches of softball, one followed by everyone from Washington coach Heather Tarr to Sherrill's own Florida State teammate, Jessie Warren. Alabama associate coach Alyson Habetz played professionally for the Colorado Silver Bullets. Former UCLA All-American and NPF veteran Amanda Kamekona played in high school.
More inclined to her given name these days, at least beyond the dugout, Sherrill's unique nickname was bestowed on her by her grandfather, a veteran. Best she knows, he picked it because of the alliteration and because it was military slang, squid being another word for a member of the United States Navy. He had a similar one for her older brother, Shelby, whose lead she followed when it came to sports. Two years older, he played baseball (still plays, in fact, at Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma), so she played baseball.
It wasn't until middle school neared that she made the move so many before her made, encouraged at least in part by her dad.
"Honestly, I think the boys started showing interest and that's when he got mad," Sherrill said in perhaps only partial jest. "He said it was time to move to softball."
In theory, at least, both sports are open to either gender. There is a men's national team in fastpitch softball, a program that has produced its own line of college coaches like Oregon's Mike White and Missouri's Ehren Earleywine. There is a women's national team in baseball; recent NCAA softball All-American Megan Baltzell is among those listed on its developmental roster.
But even putting aside the intercession of a protective parent or a team telling a girl she can't play -- as Warren said an AAU outfit once told her -- or the snide comments and endless questions Kamekona heard playing into her high school days, many leave baseball for softball for the pragmatic reason that it offers thousands of young women college scholarships.
That doesn't always guarantee a smooth transition.
"It was super hard," Sherrill said of the shift. "I'd been growing up with basically boys my whole life. I felt really different around girls and just how they were. But I got on a really awesome team ... and they really became my family. It became natural, but it was kind of weird at first."
That it worked out well is difficult to argue. A summer spent playing for her country, competing with and against the best her peer group has to offer and learning from mentors like former Olympians Laura Berg and Natasha Watley, will soon be followed by piling in the car with her parents and driving to Tallahassee, much nearer the beach she craves than is Oklahoma.
"Just knowing I'm about to go to college makes me happy to start a new chapter of my life at Florida State," Sherrill said. "I'm a little nervous for the academic part, but other than that, I'm just excited."
Still, there is just the slightest voice in the back of her head, voicing not so much a lament as curiosity. Softball is her passion now, and softball is the means to unlocking all sorts of doors -- to travel, to study veterinary medicine, to compete at a sport's highest level. But for someone who loves nothing more than watching Bryce Harper swing a bat or play the outfield, there is a part of her that still misses that other game from time to time.
"I kind of do," Sherrill said. "In my family, baseball is huge. We obviously love softball, but we watch a lot of baseball, which is kind of cool. I think it would be cool if girls played baseball."