Arguably one of the best high school softball players in the United States, Amber Freeman
recalls two defining moments in her youthful career.
The first occurred the summer before her eighth grade year when she realized who she "was" and "why" she was playing softball.
"Until then, I played for my parents, then I realized this is who I am and what I am supposed to be doing," said Freeman, a senior at Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
. "It was no longer something I did. Then it became a passion and I started playing for myself."
That summer, as a 13-year old, she played U-16 Gold and played in her third national tournament. She was only two years removed from hip surgery, an obstacle that slowed her only briefly and set the stage for what was to come.
As a matter of fact, she became so good, Freeman verbally committed to Arizona State her freshman year in high school. That certainly put her in elite company, moreso than being named second-team All-League in the always tough Trinity Conference.
The second defining moment, however, likely changed her life even more dramatically. She blew out her knee in practice before the opening of what was expected to be a sensational sophomore season. She not only missed the high school season, but summer and fall ball as well as she rehabbed from anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery.
"I realized that something as important to me as softball could be taken away at any time," said Freeman. "I was afraid I'd never play again, never catch again ... that I would lose my scholarship. I was horrified. It was very scary."
During her eight-month rehabilitation program she thought daily about her return to the field. It was a lot of "if" and not "when." That's when she decided to live every second of softball and not leave anything behind or "miss out" on anything.
"I decided never to take a day off, to give it all I have all the time," said Freeman, who is a member of the United States Junior Olympic team. "I hit every day. I've stepped up my weight training, my conditioning and my work ethic. I always want to get better."
The daughter of self-made business owners Michael and Luanne Freeman of Lakewood said she also put a great deal of work into her mental game.
"I'm still working on it," Freeman said, noting that it is the weakest part of her game. "It use to be that when I struck out, I'd let it bother me the rest of the game and it would affect how I played. Now, I realize softball is a game of failures and I am going to fail. I have to shake it off and move on to be successful."
When the 2010 season ended, she held Mater Dei's school records for homers (eight) and runs batted in (28). In batting .439, she was named league MVP, All-County and first team California Interscholastic Federation.
She followed that with an equally impressive summer season with the Corona Angels 18-Under Gold. That was followed by an 8-for-17 performance in the 2010 Pan American Junior Championships when the U.S. captured gold.
"I dreamed of playing for Team USA ever since I was a little girl," said Freeman, who plans one day to be a neonatal nurse.
Even after the successful 2010 seasons, she said she still experiences doubt and continues to work on mental "weakness." But she never forgets the promise to herself to work hard every day "to be better today than yesterday."
The result has been one of the most outstanding high school seasons in Orange County prep annals.
With the 2011 playoffs beginning May 19, Freeman has obliterated the school's RBI record with 50 RBIs, has 11 homers and 25 extra base hits in only 21 games. She is hitting .548. She has been walked an average of once a game and has an eye-popping slugging percentage of 1.306.
Freeman said, that in addition to her parents, Team USA shortstop and three-time Olympian Natasha Watley is her role model. "She is such an amazing person, on and off the field."
But the work ethic was instilled at home. She learned early to overcome obstacles and dream big.
When she was 11, she dislocated her hip, and had a three-inch titanium screw surgically inserted. It's another reminder how precious softball is to her.
"My parents came from poor families, but through hard work they now own their own businesses and show that dedication and hard work pays off," said Freeman. "They taught me that work ethic when I was young."
It shows ... daily. Just ask any opponent. Or any coaches.
"She shows up ready to go. She's one of those kids that come along once in a long time," said Mater Dei coach Doug Myers, who has sent his share of players off to collegiate softball. "She takes that commitment to excellence from the classroom to the softball field. She is always studying, always working out."
As her prep career is winding down, Freeman said her favorite Mater Dei softball memory is the historic home run she hit at Mater Dei's home field, Thorton Park. She became the first hitter in Mater Dei's history to clear the fence at Thorton. The ball is estimated to have traveled at least 275 feet, maybe 300 feet.
Her favorite softball memory was playing for Team USA and winning the gold at the Junior PanAm Games where Freeman started six of the team's nine victories.
"It was such an amazing experience for me," said Freeman, who carries a straight-A average. "It enabled me to see where softball can take me by just playing the game I love. It shows what we can do with hard work. We were treated like celebrities. Representing my country is amazing."
Team USA will compete in the World Tournament in December in South Africa.
Freeman doesn't hesitate to tout the best part of her game: hitting. She said matter-of-factly, " hit. I love to hit. I work hard to hit." Indeed she does and she hits to all fields. She proudly says she has an "inside-out swing" and can hit inside pitches to the opposite field. Her record blast at Thornton Field was to center field.
"I've always been that way," she said. "I let the ball get deep."
Myers noted that she has become such a force in the batter's box that other teams have started walking or pitching around her, so he moved her to leadoff. Imagine, a leadoff hitter with 50-plus RBIs.
In taking her bat with her to ASU, Freeman has set some lofty goals: Dean's Honor Roll all four years, Softball All-American for four Years and Break Kaitlin Cochrane's career hitting records.
Myers said he has to kick her out of the batting cage. "She does all the extra work and then some. She is a seven-day-a-week player," he said.
He's also quick to add that she does more than hit. "People get caught up on her impressive stats, but she completely paralyzes the other team's running game. Every game in our league is a one-run game."
Freeman said she choose ASU because they said she could study nursing and because of hitting coach Robert Wagner. "It's a good fit and though I'm a little nervous, I'm very excited to be part of such a great program."
At ASU, Freeman will join Team USA Junior member Dallas Escobedo, whom she caught during the Pan-Am Games and who has developed into ASU's ace as a freshman.
Freeman also has advice for younger players who might face adversity. "You will face some obstacles on your journey through the game, but never give up," she said. "The sky is the limit – dream big."
Overcoming obstacles and dreaming big are two things that define Amber Freeman.