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Lincoln Memorial gets a steal in Baker

Posted: November 28, 2016 3:17 p.m.
Updated: November 29, 2016 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I photo/

NORTH CENTRAL’S ALEXIS BAKER signed her National Letter of Intent to continue her academic and baseball-playing pursuits at Lincoln Memorial University while flanked by her mother, Melinda McCaa, her sister-in-law, Rachel Sladek, and her father, Benny Baker. Looking on from the back row, from left, are her Davie Bandits travel softball coaches, J.D. Evans, Mike Scott and Yogi Elliott, North Central athletics director Louis Clyburn, NC head softball coach Mike Grigsby and North Central principal David Branham.

It has been more than a season and a change since Alexis Baker suited up for a softball game at North Central High School. That fact did not slow schools down from trying to gain her services both on the field and in the classroom.

Baker, a senior whose sterling grades and abundance of credit hours will allow her to graduate from North Central in December rather than next May, signed a National Letter of Intent for softball with Lincoln Memorial University in a ceremony held inside The Castle in Boonetown.

For Baker, who is less than two years removed from having undergone Tommy John surgery on her right (throwing) arm, it was a bittersweet day. While happy to have her college plans lined up for her, the former Lady Knight two-sport standout wished that this could have been her signing a baseball grant rather than one for softball.

“I started playing softball my seventh grade year. I started playing baseball with the boys up until then,” Baker said. “It’s a very different experience coming to play softball from playing baseball. If I could go back, I would keep playing baseball but they made me play softball. They said, ‘You’ve got to play softball because you’re a girl.’

“I told all my coaches, every single one of them, that if I could play baseball, I’d play baseball instead of playing softball for them.”

Baseball’s loss was softball’s gain. In this particular instance, the North Central softball program reaped the benefits of Baker’s forced move to playing with the larger ball and the shorter fences. From there, LMU will pick up the softball baton in gaining Baker’s services.

Lincoln Memorial University was founded in 1987 in Harrogate, Tenn., and is a member of the NCAA Division II South Atlantic Conference which includes Newberry College. NC head coach Mike Grigsby said the Lady Railsplitters are getting a steal in Baker, who may have played her way into a Division I scholarship had it not been for the Tommy John surgery which was performed on Baker on May 1, 2015.

Not having played her junior season or, during the summer of 2015, prevented some of the larger schools from having seen and being able to evaluate Baker.

“I expected her to sign with a bigger (Division I) school but the injury kind of sidelined that for her,” Grigsby said. “I’m happy for her. I really think she will do well there.”

Having reluctantly made her way to the softball diamond, Baker quickly got used to seeing underhand pitching as opposed to the overhand throws which she saw from baseball pitchers. She said it was a hard adjustment to make, at first. “The speeds are faster in baseball than in softball,” she said of difference at the plate between the two sports.

From Grigsby’s perspective, Baker was a natural from the first minute he laid eyes on her swinging a bat.

“When I first saw her as an eighth-grader,” he said, “I knew she was going to be a special player. In fact, at that first practice, I said that she was going to be starting for us from day one. She followed all of our instructions and she just kept getting better and better.

“She went from batting leadoff in the eighth-grade and then, I needed some more RBIs out of her but I needed her back at the top of the order so she could set the table. I needed to keep moving her around just so I could get her enough at-bats. It worked out well for her and for us.”

Baker, who started in centerfield before making the switch to shortstop, finished her first year of varsity softball under Grigsby by batting .675 and earning All-State honors as an eighth-grader. She would go on to bat over .500 in her next two springs before the injury to her right arm was discovered and surgery was later performed. The time away from the softball field due to the injury ate at Baker.

“Not being able to play and not being able to go out and play whenever I would watch my team, especially if they were down and knowing that I could be there and help them,” she said when asked the hardest part of the ordeal and the rehabilitation of the injury.

The cause of the injury, Baker said, was her sidearm throwing delivery. Since the operation, she has re-invented her throwing motion. The post-surgery has led Baker to having new lease on life when it comes to throwing a softball.

“I never thought that I would have come back as strong as I have,” she said. “I came back and I am throwing the ball harder now. It doesn’t affect me. Sometimes, I’ll have pain there when it’s cold outside and I have to play in it. Other than that, it’s 100 percent.”

Unfortunately for Grigsby and the Lady Knights, they will not be able to take advantage of Baker’s talents this spring.  Then again, neither will the Lady Railsplitters as Baker plans to take the spring off and make a visit or two to the LMU campus --- which is about a six-hour drive from her home --- while practicing softball. “I was looking forward to her returning to our team but then, I found out that she decided to leave early and get started with college,” Grigsby said.

Not attending NCHS when classes resume following the Christmas break will also impact the Lady Knights’ basketball and soccer teams, all of which sports Baker had planned on playing in her final scheduled semester of high school.

“I thought about doing it last school year but I didn’t know if they would offer all my classes at the same time,” she said of when she started thinking about graduating a semester early. “Then, when I went to meet with the guidance counselor (at NCHS), he asked me if I wanted to graduate early. I jumped right on it and said, ‘Yes, I do.’

“The only downside to that is that I wouldn’t get to play basketball, softball or, soccer.”

In addition to playing for the Lady Knights, Baker said playing travel softball for the North Carolina-based Davie Bandits exposed her to seeing some top-level pitching which will help prepare her for the college game.

“I know the pitching in college is going to be a lot faster and have more movement but I’ve already had practice hitting against college pitchers and I did well,” she said.

Grigsby has little doubt that Baker will make an impact at LMU. He said Baker’s vision at the plate and a desire to succeed will carry his former player a long way in the college game.

“She knows what balls she can drive and where to put it,” he said. “She just practices so hard and takes as much batting practice as she needs. Wherever the coach decides to put her, she’s going to do an excellent job. 

“She’s really going to do well in whatever she puts her mind to doing out on that field. I wish her a lot of luck.”

Baker is ready for the new challenges which she knows await her both on and off the softball field. She is going to college with her eyes wide open. The first thing she said she needs to concentrate on is her studies, a task which has not been a problem for her to this point in her academic life.

“I have to make sure that I maintain my grades. I do that in high school but then, making sure I keep everything turned in because they don’t hold your hand in college,” she said. “It’s going to be a completely new experience to get everything down.”

Calling signing day “a very big day … it’s a great day. I’m really excited about it,” Alexis Baker admitted there is another part of the whole college experience that is sometimes overlooked when it comes to choosing a school to call home. Attending a college which is as far a drive as LMU is from Kershaw County is not a school where if you want to come home for a meal or, a quick visit, you can just jump in the car and be back on campus by the end of the same day.

Baker said she looks forward to being on her own and preparing herself for the real world after college.

“I’m really excited. I’m ready to get away and to venture out,” she said. “I’m going to be six hours away so I won’t be able to hold my mom’s hand anymore. That’s the sad part about it; leaving my family and not getting to see my little brother grow up. He just started sixth grade this year but I’m really excited to be six hours away from home and to try and be able to do it on my own.”


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