Few things have been as symbolic of the Owen softball program over the past few years as the left arm of Ashley Valencia.
The senior southpaw catcher has helped the Warlassies advance to the postseason each of the past three seasons, with a fourth playoff appearance within their grasp this year.
On April 27, in the media center at the high school, Valencia officially committed to taking her snap throws down the first base line and smooth left-handed swing to Florida by signing a letter of intent to play college softball for Pensacola State College.
Although she announced her plans to play for the Pirates in 2017, Valencia said making it official last week was a “huge relief.”
“It just feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she said moments after signing her letter of intent, surrounded by friends, family, coaches and teammates. “Now it’s set in stone.”
Just hours after the signing, Valencia appeared in her 72nd softball game for the Warlassies, who celebrated Senior Night with an 11-0 blanking of Western Highlands Conference opponent Mitchell.
With a career batting average of .463, and on base percentage of .551, as well as 101 hits and seven home runs, Valencia has been among the offensive leaders for Owen since her freshman season. She heard about Pensacola State from a friend on her travel softball team, Carolina Elite.
“She told me about the school, and I started talking to (Bryan Pack), the leader of the Carolina Elite program,” Valencia said. “He told me that he thought I had the athletic ability to play (NCAA) Division I softball.”
Valencia plans to play two seasons for the Pirates, who play in the Pandhandle Conference of the National Junior College Athletic Association. She hopes to draw interest from a Division I school, she said.
“(Pensacola State) is an amazing program,” she said. “Coach Pack told me he believes they can get me where I want to go.”
Valencia’s athletic ability has been on display at Owen since her freshman year, when she was named the school’s Female Athlete of the Year. That year she played volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter and softball in the spring. The following year she decided to swap out volleyball for tennis.
On the basketball court Valencia, in four seasons, played in more than 100 games, averaging 7.3 points, 3.7 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game for the Warlassies. Her outspokenness helped establish her as a leader on the court early in her career.
On the tennis court, she joined senior Jaiden Tweed, who she has played softball with since the age of 4, and proved to be a quick learner. As a team last October, Valencia and Tweed advanced to the Women's Individual State Championship.
Tweed, who committed to Presbyterian College last November, said it was emotional to see her lifelong friend sign to play college softball.
"We've played all year round together since we were little kids," she said in the media center following Valencia's signing. "It's really cool that we'll both go onto play in college. I'm really proud of Ashley because I've seen the hard work she's put into this."
Valencia said she'd love to play all of her sports in college, but she's exctied to play her favorite sport at the collegiate level.
"I'm ready to see what it's like to face that level of competition day in and day out," she said. "It's going to be exciting."
Her father, Joey Valencia, said his daughter was "blessed" to have the opportunity to play for the Pirates.
"She's put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this game," he said. "This is well-earned through her hard work, plus she's had to deal with me all this time."
Even though left-handed catchers continue to be a rarity in the sport, Valencia said she will continue to focus on the position in Pensacola.
"I was recruited as a utility player. But I spoke to the coach a few weeks ago and their freshman catcher committed to Jacksonville University, so she wants me to focus on catching," Valencia said. "But I have experience in the outfield and at first base, so I'm willing to do whatever I need to do to help the team."