Mere weeks ago, Land O’ Lakes native Shannon Saile was busy celebrating an NCAA Division I national championship — as one of the top pitchers on the University of Oklahoma women’s softball team.
Her decorated softball career now has quite literally come full circle.
The 23-year-old returned to her tight-knit central Pasco County hometown, again setting foot on the same park ballfields that forged a pathway for myriad athletic accomplishments.
Her goal is to organize a series of fastpitch softball clinics to train the next generation of youth standouts.
The upstart Shannon Saile Pitching Clinic was held July 25 at the Land O’ Lakes Recreation Complex, home to Land O’ Lakes Little League.
About 30 girls — ages 8 to 15 — took part on a steamy Sunday, eager to take in guidance from Saile and other well-known pitching instructors and volunteers.
Saile hopes to host similar clinics across the country — the next likely somewhere in Oklahoma — all in the name of growing the game that’s afforded her success and opportunity.
“It’s something I’m passionate about,” Saile told The Laker/Lutz News.
Naturally, it only made sense for Saile to launch her softball instruction venture back where it all began — a ballfield in Land O’ Lakes.
“I just thought it was like really important to me to start it in Land O’ Lakes, because that’s where I grew up,” she said of her softball clinic venture. “I really want to grow it across the country, and always come back to Land O’ Lakes.”
With Saile’s tutelage, young campers sharpened their fastballs and secondary offerings like changeups, through arm path mechanics and leg drive techniques, as well as various speed, agility and balance drills.
“I just hope that I can teach them the foundation of pitching, because it’s much more important than just getting out there and throwing pitches,” Saile explained. “The drills are super important, because they help me grow my strength and my confidence in my pitches.”
Besides newfound softball skills, campers also had an opportunity to get signed autographs and take pictures with Saile, who’s become a household name in the sports world. She was invited to ESPN’s 2021 ESPY Awards for being part of one of the best moments from the year in sports. The annual sports awards event was televised last month on ABC.
Saile is arguably one of the most accomplished — if not most accomplished — fastpitch softball players to ever come out of Land O’ Lakes High School and the greater Tampa Bay area.
As a Gator, she amassed 517 strikeouts and a career 1.76 ERA in four varsity seasons from 2013 to 2016, also compiling a combined 41 wins, 31 complete games, 11 shutouts and five no-hitters.
The advancement to the college ranks likewise went swimmingly for the 5-foot-7 right-hander.
Saile began her Division I softball career at Florida International University, finding immediate success with a pair of sub 2 ERA seasons in the circle.
Saile then transferred to blue-chip Oklahoma following her sophomore season.
Oklahoma is a perennial powerhouse that’s won five national softball titles since 2000 —including the 2021 Women’s College World Series over Florida State University in June — under longtime head coach Patty Gasso.
The local athlete enjoyed similar statistical feats in the iconic cream-and-crimson Sooners uniform.
As a redshirt senior this past season, Saile posted an impressive 1.70 ERA and 1.06 WHIP while being second on the team in wins (17), innings pitched (100.1), complete games (six), and strikeouts (132).
Upon returning to the area recreation complex, Saile acknowledged “flashbacks” of the many years, and countless hours and days, spent in travel ball and Land O’ Lakes Little League practices and games.
She put it like this: “Remembering where I started…it just wants me to remind the kids of, ‘You start small and you work your way up; it doesn’t happen overnight,’ and it’s just a humbling experience of remembering where I was and now where I am. It just means a lot to me to bleed that into these girls, that have the same dreams I did.”
Saile, meanwhile, continues to have vivid memories of guiding the Sooners to a national crown earlier this summer and a showy 56-4 record.
After navigating the Big 12 softball championship, NCAA regional and super regional, Oklahoma defeated James Madison, Georgia, UCLA and Florida State at the 2021 Women’s College World Series at Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
“It kind of feels like it was yesterday still,” Saile said of the historic collegiate campaign. “I just continuously live that moment in my head of just that feeling of, ‘All the hard work has finally paid off.’ Like, all of the hard work when you’re a kid, on the Little League field, and then now, in the biggest stage, it feels like, ‘Wow, everything I worked for has finally paid off,’ and not a lot of people get to experience that, and I’m so grateful that I was able to.”
All arms on deck
A slew of Saile’s former teammates, coaches and acquaintances pitched in to help the youth softball clinic run smoothly.
This included fellow former Land O’ Lakes High pitching standout Callie Turner, who launched her college career at the University of Tennessee, but has since transferred to the University of Arkansas, another prominent Division I SEC (Southeastern Conference) program.
Turner and Saile crossed paths in high school, when Saile was a senior and Turner a freshman.
Turner has plenty of name recognition in her own right — a former top-ranked prep softball recruit, state champion and participant on USA Softball’s Junior Women’s National Training Team.
The 5-foot-10 left-hander expressed enthusiasm about sharing her softball knowledge and wisdom with budding campers.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to do stuff like this,” Turner said, “(so) I think it’s really fun, and, I mean, it’s nice to think that they look up to us, so just being able to give back to the community that we grew up in, is great.”
Another notable softball figure serving up lessons — former University of Minnesota pitching standout Amber Fiser, now a softball graduate assistant at the University of Missouri.
Fiser plays alongside Saile for Team Florida in the Professional Fastpitch Softball league.
They also coached together in the Florida Gulf Coast League Pro Series, a summer collegiate softball league in the Sarasota area.
Land O’ Lakes High assistant softball coach Pascal Guarracino, another camp volunteer, took a beating while catching behind home plate.
Still, he was more than willing to don the mask and heavy glove to help current and former students.
The coach came away amazed by how Saile and Turner have transformed into top-flight Division I athletes, and their willingness to help the next wave of local softball youth.
“They really are about community, they’re about family, and it was really important for (them) to come back and do it here,” Guarracino said.
“You know, we still see them as young high school girls, as little kids, but the knowledge of the sport and the progress we’ve seen (from them) in the last four years, we learn more from them than we could learn in a (coach’s clinic) classroom.”
Turner’s father, Dave, chipped in, too.
An area softball coach himself, he emphasized the need for programs to develop more willing, confident pitchers throughout the sport.
A lot of kids are afraid to pitch, he said.
“It’s a lot of pressure. I mean, you’re out there in the circle by yourself,” he explained.
In addition to fastpitch drills, hitting instruction was happening in batting cages next to the ballfield.
That was led by Charles Aliano, a baseball lifer who now works as a scout supervisor for the Cincinnati Reds.
His daughter, Addy, is a standout outfielder at Academy at the Lakes.
Aliano was quick to heap praise on Saile, Turner, Fiser and others for coordinating the daylong softball clinic.
He said, “It’s an amazing experience for all these girls to have those girls” working with them.
He added: “It’s special, and I think everybody should embrace it.”
The next wave of local talent could include Land O’ Lakes High rising sophomore Avaree Hudson and incoming freshman Sammy Magee.
Both assisted during the clinic’s morning intermediate session, then worked on honing their own softball craft in the afternoon advanced session.
They expressed gratitude for having the trio of Saile, Turner and Fiser available to help them and the younger players to develop their skills.
They acknowledged admiring the Division I players’ talent and respective softball feats.
“I think it’s a really great opportunity because all of them are taking the time to teach everyone, and all these girls are going to be girls playing in high schools around us,” said Hudson.
“They’re just taking time out of their day to teach (the campers) new things, like changeups, that they don’t know, and I think that’s really great and really special,” she said.
Added Magee, “I think it’s cool that the older girls get to come here and help with younger kids, because it all starts with the youth and learning things and getting them to look up to them, it’s like a big thing for them.”
The prep underclassman likewise left with some beneficial softball tidbits of their own, too, from the experienced college trio.
“The way they word things is so helpful to like, ‘Learning how to get into your legs and really drive,’ and get stronger as a pitcher, mentally and physically,” said Magee, who recently moved with her family to Land O’ Lakes from Pennsylvania, in search of facing greater softball competition and exposure.
Published August 04, 2021