Big-hitting Russell hurrying to success

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

Jill Russell hits a ton of home runs.

Her secret?

Do it in a hurry.

"Swinging at the first pitch," the 18-year-old Londoner and softball slugger said. "I do that quite a bit. A lot of times, it's the best one you see. A lot depends on the umpires. If it's being called in favour of the pitcher, then it could be low-scoring. If it's not tight, it could be 11-10."

Most pitchers find it imperative to try to get ahead early in the count. But Russell usually doesn't let them.

No, it won't mean too many bases on balls. And it doesn't translate into long at-bats.

Just red-hot round-tripper production on the fastball diamond.

Russell smashed eight home runs in her rookie season of U.S. college ball for the California of Pennsylvania Vulcans. That was good enough for second on the team.

This summer, she's hitting about .500 and leading the Guelph Gators women's under-18 midget team in long balls.

The Gators just won the provincial title at home and head to the national midget championships starting this weekend at Brampton.

"It's going to be exciting and there will be a lot of good teams from across the country," said Russell, who plays shortstop and catcher for the club, "but I think we have a really good chance of winning it."

She can back up the claim. Wherever the Aquinas graduate swings, victories tend to follow. She was part of the Byron Blaze bantams that won the Ontario championship last year.

"We didn't have a midget team this season," Russell said. "A lot of the girls were moving on and I decided to try something different. That's how I went to Guelph."

It's a family commitment. There are a lot of games and practices.

"I don't have my licence yet," Russell said, "so my dad drives me."

But it's been worth the gas money.

The Gators are used to winning Ontario titles. They didn't last year and part of the rebuilding process was coaxing Russell's bat to the lineup.

"It's my first year so I didn't personally feel it was a comeback season here," she said, "but I can see how the girls who were here last year would feel that way."

In a summer stocked with tournaments, the Gators recently went to Florida and became the only Canadian team to win a U.S. Fastpitch Association national event at Panama City. Russell hit over .600 with six homers and 20 RBI in those nine games.

That success has set her up for a sophomore season at school that will likely be the most critical of her NCAA career.

Cal of Penn finished 35-10 last year and dominated its conference. The Vulcans lost at regionals and missed out on a chance at facing the powerhouses of U.S. softball. They plan on making that next step.

"We had a good year, but we're really set up for a big season now," Russell said. "This should be our best chance. We have a great coach (Rick Bertagnolli, who started Russell all 43 games she played)."

The humble hitter doesn't admire her moon shots and dreams of wearing Canadian colours at international tournaments.

"I don't know how far they go," she said. "You just want them to go over the fence."


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