Junior Pitcher Vanessa Strong Leads A Talented Freedom Roster Still Burning With Motivation Following An Emotional 2016 NCS Title Run.
Story By James G. Kane
It was, in retrospect, love at first sight.
The diamond. The ball. The strike zone. The target. And the batter, of course. Don’t forget the batter.
For Vanessa Strong, all of these things converged to stir her soul in the very first moments her aunt Sara Rhoads put a softball in her hand and started teaching her the basics of hurling it underhand and fast toward the big glove several feet away.
“There’s nothing like it,” she says. “I was hooked immediately.”
She was 6 then. Today, the Freedom-Oakley ace is a junior at one of the East Bay’s most formidable softball programs and one of the best pitchers in the North Coast Section. For hitters, a day against Strong is usually a weak one.
A year ago, she started 20 of Freedom’s 22 games, and won 17, including a 1-0, eight-inning win over Foothill in the North Coast Section Division I championship game. She earned Player of the Year honors from both the East Bay Times and San Francisco Chronicle.
She has 31 victories (and nine losses), a 1.98 ERA and 319 strikeouts in two varsity seasons and could have most of Freedom’s pitching records to herself by the time she’s finished in 2018.
“She’s a unique talent,” coach Brook Russo said.
But Strong’s rising star hasn’t changed her at the core, where she remains the little girl who just loves being on that pitching rubber with ball in her hand, hitter at the plate and a one-on-one battle looming.
“It’s been a passion,” she says. “It’s still a passion.”
To that end, she celebrated her ascension to the higher echelon of the Bay Area pitching chain — she had 176 strikeouts and allowed 95 base runners in 127 innings, and opponents hit .174 against her — by going to work. “A day or two” after pitching Freedom to its first NCS crown since 2008, she grabbed a ball and headed to the circle.
“Oh my God, it’s all the time,” catcher Faith Derby says of her battery partner’s practice habits. “It’s at least an hour every day. I don’t know, maybe more. It’s all we ever do. She’s always working at it, always trying to get better.”
Strong concurs that she’s not one to reflect and look back. She mostly talks only of what lies ahead, a defining personality in most athletic greats, and she says she has an additional source of motivation beyond her passion.
The spirit of Hayward police Sgt. Scott Lunger, a Falcons assistant coach slain during a traffic stop in July 2015, is always close to Strong and the team.
When Freedom completed it’s journey to the crown in their first full season without Lunger, “we thought of him immediately,” Strong says.
Now with a new season dawning, they think of him again. Russo acknowledges that each campaign is its own unique journey, not tied to previous or future ones. But the truth for this group of Freedom players is that Lunger remains a part of their identity.
The team’s defense, part of its foundation to success, routinely plays mistake-free ball thanks to drills designed by Lunger that they still practice over and over. When they’re finished, they put the balls back into the practice bucket dedicated to him.
In the dugout, players and coaches engage in knowing glances and observations that lets them know that Lunger is still there, just from a different place.