There are opportunities in challenges, as the old saw goes, and 15-year-old softballer Alayna Piwonski of Lake Minterwood understands this. Piwonski, primarily a catcher, played junior softball this summer in the Key Peninsula Little League (KPLL), and, along with several league mates, was good enough to make an all-star team. If only there was an all-star team.
It turns out there weren’t enough KPLL junior leaguers to fill out a complete team.
Enter that cliché from two paragraphs ago: an opportunity presented itself, in the form of the Gig Harbor Little League (GHLL) all-star team. Gig Harbor’s coach, Scott Cantu, was familiar with Piwonski, having coached her on a select softball team, The Lady Gators, and coached against her when she played for KP. Asking her to join the GHLL all-star team was a no-brainer.
“Alayna is a very special person and player,” Cantu said via email. “She is powerful, fast, smart, and an overall gifted athlete.”
Perhaps an understatement, since Piwonski also used to play volleyball and track; due to conflicts with softball and soccer she had to give them up.
“I knew what kind of player she was when I got her, but what I didn’t know was just how great a person this young lady is,” Cantu added. “She is always smiling and happy, all her teammates love her, she is quiet but makes a loud bang once she steps on the field.”
Unfortunately Cantu couldn’t invite all the qualified players from KPLL, so for Piwonski it was both hard and easy to accept his offer.
“There were at least five or six other girls that deserved to make it too,” she said. “I felt bad because nobody else got chosen, but it was fun representing my league.”
And represent she did, clubbing a grand slam and helping the GHLL team claim the District 2 championship against Bainbridge Island/North Kitsap in a best-of-three series in July. The team later finished fourth in the state championships in Oak Harbor.
While Piwonski enjoys playing for any team at any level – she also plays catcher for her high school team, Peninsula High, where she’s a sophomore – the all-star team was a different experience. Not only were the players better in general (“It was nice to be able to throw the ball to anyone and know they could catch it,” she said), but also the coaching style was also different.
“My mom and step-dad have always coached me,” Piwonski said. “It was a big step up to play with the Gig Harbor team, because there were coaches who really loved the sport and wanted to coach. If you messed up with my mom or step-dad, they would say ‘it’s OK,’ but on this team it was not OK. You can’t just be making mistakes – you’d get pulled out if you messed up really bad.”
If that sounds like Piwonski is endorsing a “tiger coach” mentality, it’s partly because it’s true. But only partly.
“I adapt well to that kind of coaching. If you mess up they’ll tell you. But they’ll also tell you if you do well,” she added.
From what Cantu had to say about her, it doesn’t sound like she needs tiger coaching.
“Alayna can play anywhere on the field, but in my mind there is no other catcher at this age in our area that can play the position like Alayna,” he said. “She is the best I’ve coached at that position.”
It’s not just her natural talent, either. It’s her intangibles, those things you can’t coach, those things batting average and grand slams and RBIs can’t measure.
“You can’t teach a player to have heart, but that is exactly what Alayna has,” Cantu said. “She hustles on every single play and never gives up no matter what the score is. Whether she is running the bases, sliding hard into the fielder, catching the tough balls or just slamming another game-winning hit, Alayna is a player any coach wants on their team.”
If that coach also has, say, a soccer team on the side? Even better. Piwonski plays on her high school team, too. All the while maintaining an excellent GPA.
When she’s not practicing or studying, she’s babysitting her six-year-old sister, Maris. Or reading Harry Potter. Or listening to music. (Drake and Kenny Chesney are her favorites.) Typical teenage stuff, in other words.
And what of her twin athletic loves, softball and soccer? “I like soccer and softball equally,” she said. “I want to play them both in college.”
College already? And isn’t going to college challenging enough on its own, let alone being a two-sport student-athlete while doing it? “I like Stanford and UCLA,” she said, “but I really want to go to UW so I can play soccer and softball in this area. I don’t want to have to choose one or the other.”
Consider that another challenge for Piwonski – and an opportunity the University of Washington would be foolish to pass up.