Friends use softball to

By Greg Mast
Gardner News

Just ask a softball player – at any age – what makes the game so appealing. The answer is always the same.

It is the friendships gained through the sport. The feeling of accomplishment playing with your friends from T-ball all the way up to the college level.

The game brings together girls from all different backgrounds and talent levels. Softball brought together Central Heights senior Taylor Chrisjohn and Gardner’s Ava Blanton. Chrisjohn comes from a rural background in Franklin County, while Blanton lives in the wealthiest county in the state – Johnson.

The two became fast friends for the past six years. The pair played for the Strikers club team. One is a catcher and the other is a pitcher. They go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The friends were not going to play college softball at different schools, so their recruiting was as a pair. The friends made visits together and made their decision together. The winner was Fort Scott Community College.

“That was a big thing, getting to go and play with her,” Chrisjohn said. “We have played together since we were 12. We went together for a visit. We got to practice with the team. Right after practice, we knew this is where we wanted to go. Just their work ethic. They wanted to win. That is the kind of team I wanted to be a part of. The girls feel like a family. The automatically accepted us. They taught us how to do stuff.

“One of the girls gave us a tour and told us how her normal schedule looked like. We knew what ours would look like.”

Today’s recruiting is a bit different than even a decade ago. Athletes reach out and send film highlights of their games to college coaches. For them, Blanton did the reaching out.

“She did all the college searching,” Chrisjohn said. “Once we got [to Fort Scott], I told them I was a catcher. I got to show all my talents. They were very pleased with it. They really liked that I was coachable and easy to get along with. That I was quick to learn and my ability to work hard.”

Chrisjohn said the friendship with Blanton is interesting for many reasons.

“Pitcher-catcher relationships need to be strong,” Chrisjohn said. “You need to know the pitchers’ No. 1 pitch is and how it might look. You need to get to know your new teammates and strengths and weaknesses, so you can help them out.

“We definitely help each other out all the time. We know what we can and can’t do. We definitely have a different chemistry on the team when we are together. Which is very important, so we can stay relaxed and trust each other.”

Chrisjohn said the community college was the route for her instead of heading to a four-year school.

“I figured going to community college would be best for me, giving me that two-year experience and see where I go from there,” she said. “To get that college experience.

“The girls we are competing with will be the same age and level. You are not going to be playing against 24-year-olds and you are only 18 or 19. That is a whole different level.”

Chrisjohn’s leadership talents have paid dividends for the Strikers and the Vikings softball teams. She led Central Heights to third-place at state in 2022. Blanton also led the Blazers to a state berth in her career. Both will be attempting to lead their teams to a return trip to their state tournaments this week. Central Heights plays Thursday in the state championship tournament.

“It has been amazing to see the improvement we have made,” Chrisjohn said of the Vikings. “Just being able to work together. Last year, we had an amazing season.”

She is a natural leader for both teams.

“Catchers are thrown into that role,” Chrisjohn said. “You need to know what is going on. I have always had the heart for catching. You have to be tough to play it. You are involved in every play and you have to have the knowledge of the game. If you don’t, one little error can cost runs [or a loss].”

Chrisjohn is a student of the game and sees so many things she can improve on before getting to Fort Scott in the fall.

“I noticed recently I need to work on my catching,” she said. “I have been watching some college softball. I saw some stuff they do that I need to work on. Like framing the ball to help the pitcher out. Hitting, focus on the little things I need to do.”

Softball is always on her mind, and everything she does is to help her improve.

“Everything I do is to prepare me for softball,” she said. “I put in work outside of practice. It is important to push myself to reach my goals. I love the thrill of the game. I need to lift more to be stronger for softball.”