By BOB ETTINGER
For the Star Beacon
Give a sophomore girl the choice and she’d rather avoid pressure. Conneaut sophomore pitcher Lexi Zappitelli is not that girl.
“I enjoy the pressure,” Zappitelli said. “It makes the game more fun. It brings hard situations. When you win from them, it makes you feel better.”
“She always wants the ball to pitch,” Conneaut coach Nick Armeni said. “When I would go to throw somebody else, she’d tell me she was fine. She wants the ball. She’s one of those kids you can count on all the time to give it everything she has.”
Zappitelli is the type of girl who jumps into the deep end, whether or not she knows how to swim. More often than not, she swims rather than sinks.
“I want to go to the hardest things and try to beat them,” Zappitelli said. “It makes the game more fun in the end. It gives you something to talk about. It makes it more interesting and gives you more of a memory about it.
“Not all the time (do I come through). I have every now and then. I try my best and sometimes I do good. Sometimes, you just can’t help the outcome.”
Zappitelli delivered in a big way this season for the Spartans. She batted .605 and carried a .632 on-base percentage, both tops in the area. She had a .932 slugging percentage, scored 28 runs and drove in 23 more. She had 46 hits, including an area-best 22 doubles (10 more than next-closest competitor) and tied for the most triples with six. She homered twice and, in a show of just how many weapons she has in her arsenal, stole 17 bases.
“I think she was the best athlete on a softball field of any of the teams we played,” Armeni said. “She hit for power. She’s like a deer on the basepaths. She had two home runs, 20 doubles and six triples. She can do it all.
“And that average is disgusting.”
Taking it a step farther, she was 10-5 in the circle with a 1.40 ERA and an area-best 0.75 WHIP. In 104 innings, she allowed 64 hits, 21 earned runs, walked just 14 and fanned 104.
“She’s a hard worker, and a hell of a competitor,” Armeni said. “She doesn’t like to lose and she doesn’t like not doing well herself.”
The daughter of Dawn and Mike Zappitelli is the Star Beacon Ashtabula County Player of the Year.
“I think that’s a great honor,” Zappitelli said.
Armeni wouldn’t mind having a couple of clones of Zappitelli.
“It would be nice to bat her 1 through 9 and play her at all nine positions. Maybe I wouldn’t trust her to get all of the signs right, but other than that, when she’s got the ball in her hands, good things happen.”
Asked how he would pitch to his star player, Armeni was thoughtful.
“At the beginning of the year, I would say I’d try throwing outside. About halfway through the season, she started hitting ropes down the first-base line and to right-center field.
“Now, I would hope she mishits one and only gets a single.”
Delivering in the big moments is something Zappitelli thoroughly enjoys.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Zappitelli said. “You feel like you just won something really good, especially when there’s a lot of pressure. That makes it interesting and fun.”
Those times she doesn’t come through are tough on her.
“That’s a hard feeling,” Zappitelli said. “You feel like you’re so close, but you just don’t get there. You go back over it and try to think of the things you could change.
“It’s rough, but you get over it. You move on and learn from the experience. It’s a good thing to do.
“It’s a tough feeling. You try and work harder for the next time and that’s the positive out of it. You learn from the experience.”
Don’t let her fool you, though. Zappitelli hates to lose.
“(I get the competitive nature) just from playing sports my entire life,” she said. “I grew into it. “Everyone wants to win. Losing kind of stinks.”
With an older sister, Angie, in the program, as well, it would be easy to think that competitive nature is rooted deeply in a sibling rivalry. That really isn’t the truth, however.
“I never felt like that,” Zappitelli said. “Playing with her was a lot of fun, actually. We made some good memories. I look up to her. She’s a good role model. She’s unique. She’s so weird. We have a lot of good memories (playing) together.”
Zappitelli’s approach as a pitcher was pretty simple.
“Usually, when it’s a good hitter, I tried not to give them good pitches,” Zappitelli said. “I tried to get them to either groundout or, most likely, I tried to get the strikeout because it was the easiest thing to do.
“The defense doesn’t have the pressure of making the play. I try and do it myself to take that pressure off.”
In developing into one of the best hitters in the county, Zappitelli took a surprisingly simple approach.
“I tried to get on base,” Zappitelli said. “Base hits, that’s all I wanted. I try to not think about anything when I’m up. I just want to get on base. I’m not thinking about the averages or anything else.
“When I’m up to bat, I just clear my mind and not think. When I start thinking, that’s usually when I struggle. I just go up and hit the ball, or at least I try to.”
With two years still ahead of her, Zappitelli has yet to reach her ceiling. There’s still more to come.
“There’s always something I could be better at,” Zappitelli said.
“Hopefully, great things (are still ahead). I don’t know (what’s next), though.”
Having conquered the individual part of being good, Armeni knows the exact step Zappitelli has to take next in order to be great.
“She’s a five-tool player,” Armeni said. “I think the next step in her evolution is she has to be able to make her teammates better. She’s got to take over a leadership role or even lead by example.
“Good players have good stats. Great players make others better around them. I think that’s her next evolution.”
For her part, Zappitelli already understands exactly what her coach is saying.
“The older people need to step up and take leadership,” she said. “That’s really important.
“I’m definitely ready.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula. Reach him at email@example.com.