Samantha Shirling and Krista Jennings have a lot in common.
For starters, they both attend Eastwood High School, they both play softball for coach Joe Wyant and they’re both infielders, technically.
Shirling, the Eagles’ senior pitcher, and Jennings, the starting junior second baseman, are also blind in their left eye and right eye, respectively.
(Photo by Russ Lytle)
(Photo by Russ Lytle)
Shirling was 20-2 with a 1.74 ERA heading into Eastwood’s Northern Buckeye Conference championship game against Elmwood on Thursday. The 18-year-old, who pitches right-handed and bats lefty, was born with a lazy eye.
“I wore glasses to try to fix that,” Shirling said. “When I was about 8 or 9 the eye doctor said it’s not getting any better, so I stopped wearing glasses. Now we just do everything to protect the good eye so I don’t go blind in that eye. I always wear a face mask, in case of some freak accident.”
Shirling recalled playing T-ball when she was just 4, and she tried other sports in elementary school. Softball stuck. As a young girl, and even now, Shirling said she’s never felt sorry for herself.
“When I was younger I switched to bat left-handed so it would be easier to see the ball,” she said. “I struggled with that, going through that switch. It was unfortunate. I had to put in a little more work to make it work. Now, I’m here and I’m happy. There were certain sports I couldn’t do, like contact activities. Softball was my favorite thing and I could still do that. As I’ve gotten older, I’m so used to (being blind in one eye) and I’m fine with that.”
Shirling was a spot-starter on the mound last season, behind Whitney Foster, and compiled a 5-0 record. This season she has 152 strikeouts in 141 innings pitched, with just 11 walks (five intentional).
“She has above average speed,” Wyant said. “She throws about 55 (mph) and has great control. She doesn’t walk people. Her best pitch is probably her drop-curve, and she has a good screwball.”
Due in large part to Shirling’s right arm, Eastwood took a 26-2 record (12-1 NBC) into Thursday’s rematch against Elmwood. The Eagles lost to Maumee, 10-6, in the Division II district semifinals.
“With the exception of the Maumee game, everything’s gone great,” Shirling said. “Last year we had a winning season and this season, being my first to pitch (full time) and my last, I wanted to carry on the tradition of the program and keep it winning. I would really like to finish the season with a good win.”
The million dollar question begs to be asked: How in the world does Shirling excel on the mound with one good eye?
“When I’m fielding, there might be a line drive I might miss,” she said. “When you’re pitching and you’re that close to the batter, there’s always going to be a line drive you can’t get. It’s something I got used to. You can’t pity yourself. You have to put in a little more work with the angles you need to see, and you have to know what works for you and train like that.”
Shirling said she’s never felt to need to prove herself. She and Jennings like the fact that, save for close friends, their families and their coaches, no one really knows about their eye issues.
“It’s not like I’m fighting harder because of that,” Shirling said. “I want to do well personally and I want my team to do well. A lot of people don’t know. That’s the goal, and we don’t want to use that as an excuse.”
Wyant said he’s amazed at the talent level displayed by Shirling and Jennings. He said you can’t tell they each have vision problems “from a distance,” before adding, “you definitely can’t tell by the way they play.
“They don’t make any complaints,” Wyant said. “Both play excellent defense and can hit the ball. Jennings has the second or third best average on our team, and Sam is the strongest girl at Eastwood. She lifts weights a lot, some as much as the boys do. She worked hard in the offseason to make herself stronger.”
Shirling, who has a 3.8 GPA, gave a verbal commitment to pitch at Capital University beginning next fall. She said her message to other people, especially young people, with disabilities such as hers is simply “you can’t give up.”
“With any condition, you have to work with it,” said Shirling, who plans to go into nursing. “Never give up and just keep working at it. When you’re older, you probably won’t see it as a problem anymore. I don’t think anybody should give up, no matter their circumstances.”
Jennings played left field last season but has transitioned well to second base. She said it’s easier to stay focused on the game when she plays the infield. The 5-foot-8 Jennings, who has been blind in her right eye since birth, also played on Eastwood’s basketball team last season.
“I have a growth on my optic nerve,” she said. “It’s not really my eye, necessarily. It’s more in my brain than in my eye. When I was younger, in fourth grade, I went to the Cleveland Clinic and they said there was no surgery (available) for me to get it out of there, but maybe in 15 years or so. I don’t really think about it, and I haven’t thought about fixing it.”
She said the potential is there to take care of the growth down the road, but she doesn’t dwell on it.
“I don’t know if it’s really worth it,” she said. “I’ve been used to it for so long.”
Jennings, 17, has been playing sports “for as long as I can remember,” and she insisted that she’s never had any “why me?” moments because of her vision.
“I never thought about it in that way at all,” Jennings said. “When I was younger and you got those little eye tests in elementary school, I always cheated on those because if I didn’t pass, I would have to go somewhere else. I’ve just adapted and compensated for the other eye not being able to see. One eye is all I’ve ever known and all I’ve got. I have good peripheral vision. I’ve already passed my driver’s test.”
Jennings was hitting .404 with 27 RBI, a team-high 42 runs, six doubles, two home runs and eight steals prior to the Elmwood game. She had just 10 strikeouts in 99 at-bats.
“If she had two (perfect) eyes,” Wyant said, “she might be hitting 100 points higher. She never makes any excuse.”
Jennings, who has a 3.6 GPA, has a message for others with disabilities.
“As long as you work at it and have that want and passion to do something, you can do it,” she said. “Anything is possible if you work hard and have that passion to do it.”