Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sami Fagan Steps Into Justin's World

There have been countless groups of siblings to play college softball down through the years. Your percentages begin to get smaller if you narrow your field to trios of sisters playing in the same conference at the same time. The three Fagan sisters - Kasey, Sami, and Haley - accomplished the very feat in 2015, each of them suiting up for one of the SEC's thirteen teams. That's just under one-quarter of the programs in arguably the sport's top conference that included members of the same bloodline on their rosters.

Photo: Don Martukovich
Middle daughter Sami entered the SEC like gangbusters. Hitting .378 as a Florida Gator in her first foray into collegiate play, Sami took the SEC by storm and looked poised to be the next Gator all-time great. A late-season removal from the squad shocked the softball world, leaving rumors to swirl around Sami, sister Kasey, and teammate Cheyenne Coyle, all of whom were dismissed together without ever a publicly-issued explanation.

Winding up with the Missouri Tigers as her new home, Sami Fagan took the required redshirt season due to transferring inside the same conference and emerged a year later as one of the most feared hitters in the league.  She seemingly got better as her career as a Tiger went on, culminating in a senior season that saw her earn all-American honors with a .434 batting average.

Drafted #4 overall in the 2016 National Pro Fastpitch draft by the Akron Racers, Sami quickly became one of the league's finest young players, earning Rookie of the Year honors amidst a season that saw her post a .387/9/39 campaign.

"Sami's demeanor, fierceness, and athleticism is in her DNA," Racers general manager Joey Arrietta told me. "The more I watched her play [in college], the more I thought she would be the best choice for our team."

Justin’s World of Softball: How did you get started playing softball?
Sami Fagan: My parents put me in t-ball when I was 5. I just started playing in little league every year after that and grew to love the sport. 

Justin’s World of Softball: With a Super Bowl champ as a dad, how did his success as an athlete inspire you as a young and budding athlete?
Sami Fagan: I always admired all of his awards and super bowl rings when I was a kid. That's when it started for me. I thought he was the coolest man on earth. I watched him all the time in his daily activities. He did every single job the right way, he worked hard, and he was so mentally and physically strong. I just tried to be like him all the time. He told me how hard work can take you to the top, and that's all I needed to know.

Justin’s World of Softball: Who would you call your biggest inspiration in the game of softball and/or someone that you have modeled your game after?
Sami Fagan: I watched a lot of film on Caitlin Lowe and Natasha Watley back in my slapping days. I studied them all the time in my free time. I would also watch Mike Candrea's instructional videos with my dad. When I transferred to Mizzou and I developed into a hitter, I talked a lot with Phil Bradley on hitting mentality since he was such a great hitter in the big leagues. He helped me tremendously. 

Justin’s World of Softball: As one of three top-level softball sisters, were y'all more competitive with one another growing up or always just one another’s biggest fans?
Sami Fagan: We were more of each other’s biggest fans. I competed with other players, but no one wanted my sisters to do well as badly as I did. I'd get mad when other people compared us because we all brought different tools to the table.

Justin’s World of Softball: Ultimately winding up as competitors against one another in SEC games, tell me about those matchups and facing your sisters and their teams.
Sami Fagan: I didn't enjoy playing against them. I played with them my whole life so it was weird. They are both huge impact players so if they do well, they usually win. I was torn because I wanted to win, yet I wanted them to do well. I'm just glad I won't have to play against them anymore.

Justin’s World of Softball: At least up to this point, what would you call the proudest moment of your career?
Sami Fagan: The proudest moment of my career would be when I got drafted by the Akron Racers in the first round. I desperately wanted to continue my career after college and it was an honor to be selected in the first round by such a great program. I invested so much time and energy into this sport, and my parents made so many sacrifices to allow me to play, and all of it paid off. It made me realize that it was all worth it.  

Justin’s World of Softball: How did you first find out about the NPF and decide that playing in the league was something you wanted to do?
Sami Fagan: I knew about the NPF ever since I was little. I went to a game one time with my dad. I never pictured myself playing at this high of a level until I did well my freshman year at Florida. Having that success as a freshman showed me how all my hard work was paying off, so I just kept working harder to be the best player I could be. I made it clear during my junior and senior years at Mizzou that I wanted to be drafted. I felt like I didn't reach my full potential yet and haven't peaked as an athlete so I wanted to continue to play as long as possible. 

Justin’s World of Softball: Walk me through the journey that led you to Florida, then from Florida, and to Mizzou.
Sami Fagan: Florida was the only school that offered me when I committed. It was close to home and my sister was going there so I thought it would be perfect. I enjoyed my time there until I was suddenly released from the team with no explanation. Then I went on visits to USF, Oregon, Baylor, and Mizzou. I loved each school and respected each coach. It was the toughest decision I've ever made, but in the end I thought the redshirt year that I would be required to have from transferring within conference would help me develop into more of a hitter, so I went with Mizzou. 

Justin’s World of Softball: Tell me about playing for Coach Earleywine and what your years under his tutelage meant for you.
Sami Fagan: Coach E and the rest of the Mizzou staff have made me into the best player and person I ever could have been. They know so much about the game that I didn't know existed until I got there. The staff helped me get through a lot of adversity and supported me throughout my career. Coach E and I are similar people in the fact that we are misunderstood and judged before people get to know us. He's such a caring, loving person and it was cool to get to know him. He was someone I could talk to who I knew truly cared for me. It was a blessing and an honor to play for him. 

Justin’s World of Softball: Tell me about your plans for the future.
Sami Fagan: My goal is to be able to play softball year-round. I've had the dream of playing on the National team since I was eight years old and I'm hoping to get an opportunity to represent my country. I also want to play overseas in Japan since they play when the NPF is in the off-season. It would keep me sharp and help me learn more about the game. Once I can't play anymore, I'd like to coach and spread my knowledge. 

Justin’s World of Softball: When it comes to the situation at Florida, how did that situation transpire and what effect did it ultimately have on you emotionally and mentally?
Sami Fagan: The whole thing was blown out of proportion by the media. Since a statement was never made as to why I was released, assumptions were made and they were extremely hurtful. Several people attacked me on social media and I was a victim of cyber bullying. It was the hardest thing I've ever gone through, and at Mizzou, Coach E suggested I see a psychologist to help me deal with it. I was diagnosed with severe depression. It has made me aware of mental illnesses and I really enjoy helping people who talk to me about their problems because I know what being in a dark place is like, and I hate that people go through it. Ultimately, I believe that it made me better as a person. I had a great experience at Mizzou, and I’ve learned not to judge anyone based on rumors. 

Justin’s World of Softball: Tell me how your faith impacts your play on the field.
Sami Fagan: I'm blessed to be surrounded by coaches who are strong in their faith. My dad has always been my coach and he has such a strong faith, so it was helpful to play for him for so long. He taught me that if I play for God and not for people then I would play more freely. Always worrying about statistics and awards takes the fun away from the game. Playing for God and using the gifts that he gave me makes the game much more enjoyable. Coach E[arleywine] and Coach Brian [Levin] here in Akron are also men of faith, so they keep me accountable. 

Justin’s World of Softball: With all of the speculation, controversy, investigation, and all that went with it coming around the program and Earleywine this season, how did that affect the locker room mood and the team atmosphere? As part of the leadership council on this year’s club, what did you have to do to revitalize the club’s desire to win and fight.
Sami Fagan: It has a huge effect on the team morale. We had angry people that didn't understand why the athletic department was putting us through that in the middle of our season. We had people that were upset because Coach E didn't do anything wrong and didn't deserve what he was going through. People on the team were unsure who was accusing Coach, so people were suspicious of each other. The senior class, as team leaders, had several meetings with the team to try to work things out. Not everyone is going to get along with each other on a team, but you have to put it aside and play together when you step on the field. We asked that for 7 innings we put aside our problems and what was happening and just play our game. We gave it our all for Coach E and the rest of the staff, and that's all we could do.

Justin’s World of Softball: Let’s end on a fun one – say you’re stranded on a deserted island for an undetermined period of time, but can take three things with you. Boats and phones are off-limits. What would you take?

Sami Fagan: I would take a handsome man with good survival skills, a lot of water, and a Bible.

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