THE BEE's OUTSTANDING SOFTBALL PITCHER OF THE YEAR: SAMANTHA BLAIR• Grade: Senior
• School: Clovis
• Qualifications: With the help of Cougars pitching coach Nicole Reed and assistant Ralph Salazar -- a former Bee Player of the Year and San Joaquin Valley fast-pitch legend, respectively -- Blair blossomed in her second season after a transfer from Clovis East. The right-hander went 20-4 with an 0.99 ERA, 178 strikeouts in 148⅔ innings and seven shutouts and held opponents to a .167 average. All-Tri-River Athletic Conference first-team led Clovis to 29-4 record, with a co-league championship and semifinal finish in the Central Section Division I playoffs. "It's nice to see a player come into her own and get some of the success she's worked for," Cougars coach Mike Noel said. "We didn't get to where we wanted to go ultimately, but it was a special year and she was a big part of it."
• Becoming a winner: Prior to coming to Clovis, Blair hadn't played on very many successful teams. And her first season as a Cougar only offered a hint at what was to come as Blair went 14-12 with a 2.87 ERA. She had 129 strikeouts in 158⅔ innings, uncharacteristically low for a pitcher who throws hard like Blair. "She was our No. 1 pitcher and kept us in games, but I don't think she really knew how to win yet. She was kind of a thrower of the ball, but not a pitcher," Noel said. "She got with Nicole Reed and Coach Salazar and the two of them really taught her how to be a pitcher, about the mental aspects of it, setting hitters up and those kinds of things. She became a totally different pitcher. She didn't just keep us in games, but won a lot of them for us. We didn't have to be perfect because of her dominance."
• Honing her craft: Reed and Salazar got Blair to pitch more inside. With Blair attacking and challenging hitters, rather than working away as much, she lowered her hits allowed from 127 to 99 and walks from 70 to 43. "When you throw as hard as she does, and you can come inside, it's not comfortable for the batter to be in there," Noel said.
• Up next: Because of her late emergence, Blair has received limited interest from four-year colleges. She may go to Fresno City so she can continue to build her résumé. "People haven't seen the growth she's had," Noel said. "But if someone does get her, they are getting a diamond in the rough. If given the chance, I think she can do great things."