There is a point where players are no longer known for their statistical performances but for their specialized abilities that go beyond the box scores.
Annalia Paoli has achieved this for Ohio softball with her home run-hitting prowess.
The junior hails from Point Marion, Pennsylvania, a town with just over 1,100 residents. Paoli became a legend at Albert Gallatin Senior High School as a four-year letter winner, including two years as team captain. Paoli helped break a 20-year playoff drought for her high school, leading it to the playoffs three times.
High school achievements aside, Paoli had decided to commit to the University of Pittsburgh in order to stay local. However, that decision was not her final choice.
"There was really no other place I would rather be … ," Paoli said. "Six months later (after committing to Pittsburgh), I was like 'That was absolutely the wrong decision.' I came back (to Athens) and have loved it here … the campus, softball coaches, everything that's been brought to me."
If Paoli had any reservations about her ability to play collegiate softball, they were answered right off the bat. Paoli not only started every game as a freshman, but she did so with a .307/.348/.420 slash line.
Regardless, Paoli embodies the adage "the greatest ability is availability." As a Bobcat, she has played in every single game. When it comes to college softball, games are played on consecutive days, often multiple times a day. That consistency is almost unheard of, as Paoli could become just the 15th Bobcat to play in 200 career games.
"Softball has always been my entire life, ever since I was four," Paoli said. "My dad has been the best coach for me growing up. He has drilled into me to be the best player I can be and always try my best and he has pushed me to where I am today. So I take that energy that (my dad) has given me and bring it onto the field and try to drill it into my teammates as well."
Moreover, the ability of first-year head coach Jenna Hall to have a consistent name to pencil in at 3rd base is a huge lift. As Hall learns the ropes of managing a dugout for the first time as a head coach, Paoli's availability helps immensely.
However, in terms of culture, Paoli learned from her new head coach.
"(Coach Hall) brings so much positivity to all of us," Paoli said. "Everyone's always so happy to come to practice, show up for gameday. The atmosphere is just so great this year. I love the chemistry with all the teammates, the coaches, just all of us together."
On the field, Paoli is a marvel in the batter's box. She has a rare combination of power and contact, which puts incredible pressure on even the best defenses and pitching staffs in the country.
"Even when I am in an 0-2 count, I just have to think 'I'm making contact with the ball and I'm covering all parts of the plate,'" Paoli said. "Obviously, everyone hates to strike out. I just try to have the best mindset whenever I have two strikes on me and to at least put a ball in play hard, even if I get out because if (you're) putting the ball in play, (you're) going make the fielders work and you have a better chance of getting on base."
In the absence of Allie Englant, who ranks second in Ohio history in hits, it was easy to wonder if Ohio could put the ball in play enough to be competitive. Although seen more often as a power hitter, Paoli has filled some of that void.
Regardless, Paoli has become one of the bigger bats on the Bobcats and the Mid-American Conference. She is the marquee slugger for the Bobcats, but with that territory, there are more responsibilities than simply being expected to hit home runs. Paoli is learning to handle the different treatment that comes from opposing pitchers.
"Last year, I was seeing a lot of better pitches and then this year, I'm getting a lot of balls off the plate," Paoli said. "The pitcher is trying to get me to chase. That just means (you) have to have a stronger mindset. So this year has been a little different and I have to think 'I'm only hitting a pitch that is in the zone and that I can drive.'"
Driving the ball is something that Paoli specializes in. She recently moved into 12th in program history in home runs, but her mindset remains unchanged regardless of how many she hits. While Paoli admits that everyone, including her, loves to hit home runs, they simply aren't everything. Paoli says she is trying to "get runs in to win the game."
Through the development of Paoli as a player, her mindset in the batter's box has yet to veer from the one that got her to this point. As Ohio looks to make some noise in the MAC this season and bring home a conference title, Paoli's ability to be a constant on the field and in the minds of opponents will be key to unlocking the full potential of the team.