Above photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Departments (Niles, on left, Long, on right)
BELTON-They are one of the ASC’s unstoppable batteries, a pitcher-catcher duo that has combined for 103 strikeouts, 11 wins, and four shutouts thus far. Operating as one unit, rather than two individual components, Grason Long and Blakely Niles have created some painstakingly long afternoons for opponents of the UMHB softball team this season.
Hits are difficult to come by. Walks are even rarer. And if an opponent is lucky enough to reach base, it does not take long for Niles to throw the base runner out; only 8 of the 15 steal attempts with Niles behind the plate have been successful. Opponents who have learned that fact the hard way have just stopped trying to swipe bases altogether.
All the while, UMHB softball rose to No. 16 in the NFCA Top 25 Poll last Tuesday, and the Cru enters the final series of the regular season against Concordia on Friday in the midst of a 13-game winning streak.
“Everybody has a role, and I feel like our team has been so successful because everybody knows their role,” Long said.
A breakout season in the circle
2023 has been a breakout year for Long, who has shared the pitching duties with Kami Flores, evidenced by her first college no-hitter two weeks ago in a 9-0 shutout over Ozarks. With six games left in the regular season and the ASC Tournament to follow, Long has already reached career highs in starts (17), strikeouts (103), innings pitched (99.2), and wins (11).
For someone who started just three games and tossed 29.1 innings a year ago, Long has more than elevated her impact with the Cru this spring. But Niles is not surprised in the slightest, having been a witness to Long’s success since the two were middle schoolers, growing up in East Texas and playing travel softball through the summers.
“We played softball for the same select team since the eighth grade,” Niles said. “It’s a nice duo to have because I’ve been catching Grason for so long. She has trust in pitches that I call. There’s times when she may feel like her warmup didn’t go well or her changeup isn’t going well, but she’s confident enough to throw it when I call it.”
That element played a crucial role in the program’s sixth no-hitter against Ozarks, as Long’s poise showed up in a noticeable way, but Niles’ work behind the plate, calling the right pitches to challenge the Ozarks lineup, had just as much of a role in the end result.
“It gives me so much confidence,” Long said of having Niles at catcher. “Blakely is probably one of the best catchers I’ve ever had. She is so smart with the game and reading batters. The girl in the box doesn’t have to take one swing and Blakely already knows what pitch we’re going to throw her.”
As the first inning led into the second, and second into the third, a buzz around Dee Dillon Field increased. The zeros on the scoreboard in right-center field provided a constant reminder of the achievement in progress. But all eyes were fixated on the field, as Long retired batter after batter, with some additional help from the infield behind her.
“Everytime we met in the middle [as an infield], I kept saying, ‘Play for your pitcher,’” Niles remarked. “Sometimes it gets overlooked how hard the pitcher is working, especially at that point.”
They certainly did. Elissa Elliott and Lindsey Polleschultz each made notable diving stops in the early part of the game, which preserved the no-hitter as the contest played out. It gave Long an added confidence, she said later, because she knew the infield would make a play on nearly every batted ball. “Pitching to contact” allowed Ozarks to put the ball in play, but because of the infield behind Long, that proved to be a better approach than aiming pitches on the outside of the strike zone. Not only did she not give up a hit, she did not walk or hit a single batter.
“I tried not to think about the fact that I was throwing a no-hitter,” Long added. “Obviously every time you look up at the scoreboard and see the zero on there, you see that you’re not giving up any hits. But I honestly just tried to pitch to contact.”
The irony of Long’s mentality is that for quite some time as a young pitcher, it was a fear of giving up hits that challenged her confidence, and performance on the field.
“Growing up, my biggest mental block with pitching was being hard on myself, especially when I did give up hits,” Long noted. “As a pitcher, obviously you want to throw a no-hitter every game. Is that going to happen? No. But you don’t think about it. Trust your spin, and that your defense is going to be behind you, and you’ll get the job done.”
The path to Belton
Part of that confidence has come from playing alongside Niles for all four of her collegiate seasons. Both agree that they tend to feed off of each other, and the bond established over the last nine years has helped each improve individually, while excelling as a team.
That was the duo’s reasoning as they began evaluating their options in the spring of 2021, while as sophomores at Tyler JC. But the options were not plentiful, considering a number of programs across all levels had fifth-year seniors returning in abundance, after Covid canceled the majority of the 2020 season.
“ I’m not going to lie, it was super disheartening,” Long recalled, noting that a number of coaches showed interest in both Niles and Long, but did not have roster spots at hand. “We knew somewhere in our hearts that there was going to be a coach who was going to take a chance on us as a pair, not just individually.”
That coach was Melissa Mojica, in her first season leading the UMHB softball program. Interestingly, it was a connection to UMHB assistant coach Leah Guest that ultimately resulted in an opportunity for the junior college transfers.
“Our assistant coach at Tyler actually played for Coach Guest when she was a coach at UT-Tyler,” Long added. “She said, ‘Hey, my old coach at Tyler coaches at UMHB. I can always reach out and see if they need a pitcher and a catcher.’ We were like, ‘Yes please.’”
UMHB proved to be a viable fit, not only from a softball standpoint, but also because of the academics and family-type atmosphere the university provided.
“Being able to call UMHB a home is truly something I’m thankful for,” Niles said. “At Tyler, it wasn’t like that. You did your own thing and that was it. It was a little nerve-racking coming in, but everyone was so welcoming.”
“The academics, the facilities, the atmosphere is all incredible,” Long said. “Blakely and I had decided we wanted to grow more in our faith and felt like this is where we were both pulled. You immediately feel a sense of comfort when you step on campus.”
Making the most of the opportunity at hand
While both have two additional years of eligibility, due to back-to-back Covid eligibility waivers from their time at the JUCO level, neither Niles nor Long plan to return in 2024. This is it. As nursing majors, and having already played four years of college softball, they are at peace with how their careers have played out. But they also are not ready for it to be over.
“I was very stressed being in nursing school and playing softball, so I just decided to take softball as a pleasure, because it’s not always going to be around,” Niles said. “I’ve really tried to enjoy my time here. I’ve built relationships over the last two semesters of my last year being here, and you can’t get those back.”
“I try not to think about the fact that in less than a month, this may be over,” Long added. “You dedicate your lives to this. I’ve been playing since I was 12. It’s hard to think about when you’re talking about walking away from it.”
Though this season represents a number of “lasts” for the senior group; last home game, last regular season game, last practice, there is a “first” for everyone within the program that is within the sights heading into May.
Only one UMHB team in history, the 2008 squad, has reached the NCAA Tournament. And that team did not win an ASC crown. But currently atop the ASC standings, with a chance to host the conference tournament in two weeks, this squad appears very close to becoming the first to win a conference championship.
“I’m trying to find comfort in the fact that I have an amazing group of teammates and an amazing coaching staff behind me to end my last season with,” Long said. “We have so much left to play for. I’m just taking it one game at a time and balling out every chance I get.”