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On the short list: Kettle Run’s Stuart is one of best middle infielders in conference

Friday, May. 30 | By Jeff Malmgren
Kettle Run sophomore shortstop Debbie Stuart has a career batting average over .500 and hopes to play for an NCAA Division I team after she graduates in 2016. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
*Editor's note: This story originally ran May 23*

Debbie Stuart is a mercenary catcher.

She’s a backstop for hire who gets paid in pitches.

That’s just a side gig, though. Stuart starts at shortstop for the Kettle Run Cougars during the spring and at third base for the Fauquier Freeze during the fall.

She’s always available, however, to catch for a softball pitcher in need. All she’s missing is "The A-Team" theme song.

“Wherever needed,” Stuart said. “I’m always up for practicing.”

She often catches for Kettle Run’s ace pitcher, Kaitlin Munda, during sessions with Munda’s pitching coach. Stuart also occasionally helps Freeze pitchers get in some extra work.

In fact, Kettle Run coach Tori Hill first met Stuart about six years ago during a side session. Hill, a pitching coach during her spare time, often instructed Forrest Poland. One of Poland’s best friends, Stuart, often did the catching during those sessions years ago.

“So I’ve known her since she was like 10,” Hill said of Stuart. “But I’ve always known her as a catcher.”

Hill converted her to a shortstop for the Cougars.

“It’s not even her natural position and she’s one of the best shortstops in the conference," Hill said of the 16-year-old sophomore, who plays in Conference 27.

Prior to arriving at Kettle Run last season, Stuart had actually evolved from a catcher during her elementary years to a third baseman during her middle school years. The Warrenton resident also dabbled in work as a first baseman.

Regardless, Stuart retained her catcher skills and filled in at that position whenever needed.

The Cougars, meanwhile, didn’t have a drastic need at catcher when Stuart arrived. They had plenty of other openings at important infield positions, though. Stuart could have filled any of those slots, but Hill designated her as shortstop.

“She's one of the best athletes that we’ve seen,” Hill said. “She has good range, great athleticism and a good arm. I thought we kind of had to put her at short."

Among the best

Debbie Stuart made the short list last season.

Or the shortstop list, as it were, and that has been a reliable predictor of college-level talent.

Stuart was one of four shortstops in 2013 who composed the "infielders" section of the all-Evergreen District first team. No player from any other position made that list, and Stuart's three shortstop peers went on to commit to NCAA programs.

Fauquier graduate Justina Augustine now plays Division I softball on scholarship for Longwood University and recently made the All-Big South second team as a freshman second baseman. Brentsville senior Haley Kilby recently signed a letter of intent to do the same at Longwood. And Liberty senior Leslie Bourgeois has a roster spot with Division III Lynchburg.

Stuart, meanwhile, is only a sophomore but has already attracted attention from colleges such as Radford, Mary Washington, Methodist and Longwood.

“You put her up against Leslie and Kilby and Augustine, she’s right there with them," Hill said. "Her head’s on straight, she works hard and she wants to play in college. She’s setting herself up to be able to get a good scholarship."

Stuart has tried to model herself after the best shortstop she’s seen – Augustine. When Stuart made the all-Region II second team last season, Augustine was named the region’s Player of the Year.

Stuart and Augustine have never played together, but Augustine is a Freeze alumnus who has occasionally returned to practice on the same field as Stuart.

“It was enough to watch her and know how good she was,” Stuart said of those practices. “She's phenomenal. … She was always a role model for me.”

Stuart seems to be following those footsteps stride for stride thus far. Her defense has been all but impeccable and her career batting average at Kettle Run is over .500.

She finished last season with a .507 average and is hitting .500 through 16 games this season. She leads the Cougars with 27 hits and has a .593 on-base percentage.

Naturally, in Kettle Run’s batting order, Stuart fills the No. 3 spot typically reserved for a team’s best hitter.

“She’s been huge,” Hill said. “She’s a good base runner, too.”

With Munda, Kendall Penn, Stuart, Shelby Stegmaier and Poland composing the top of the lineup, Kettle Run has a 13-3 record (6-1 conference).

“Debbie is a core part of that,” Hill said of the Cougars’ success.

Stuart has 19 runs and 14 RBIs with four doubles, three triples and a home run.

“I love watching that girl play ball,” Stuart’s father, Danny, said. “She’s dedicated to softball."

Debbie Stuart's goal is to play NCAA Division I softball and then join a professional team. She devotes much of her time to that end.

“Academics comes first, softball is second and there's nothing in between, before or after,” Danny Stuart said.

Travel time

Debbie Stuart has listened to baseball conversations in Florida, Alabama, Pennsylvania, New York and almost everywhere in between.

That's because her brother, David, played for a travel team that traversed the East Coast. Stuart and her parents, Danny and Susan, followed in support of the team.

Saturation in that sport helped turn Debbie Stuart into a committed softball player.

"She always had that baseball in her hand," Danny Stuart said. "She learned a lot traveling."

"I looked up to my brother," Stuart said. "We'd always talk about what happened … as a family."

Stuart's brother also attended some of her softball games and offered advice along with Stuart's father. A lot of that insight proved to be redundant, though.

"If she makes a mistake, she’s more hard on herself than any of the coaches," Danny Stuart said. "She’ll practice that until it’s correct. She’s very dedicated."

Expecting perfection from herself, however, sometimes became counterproductive for Stuart.

One mistake in a game could shake her psyche.

"My biggest challenge definitely was trying to accept the fact that you’re not always going to be perfect," Stuart said. "You’re going to make mistakes and you just need to learn from them."

Stuart credits her various travel team coaches – Mark Ott, Erika Yates, Bob Payne, etc. – over the years with helping her realize that softball intrinsically comes with failure.

“I learned most of what I know from my father and" those coaches, she said.

Stuart's father coaches her in T-ball and then she played three seasons for Ott's Fauquier Freeze 10U team. Stuart joined the Manassas Blaze 14U team for two seasons before returning to the Freeze 16U and 18U teams for a year each.

While with the Blaze, Stuart, Munda and Poland helped win 14U 2010 USSSA World Series in Florida.

"My team was amazing," Stuart said.

Her highlight this season with Kettle Run was helping sweep the rival Fauquier Falcons for the first time in program history. During a 4-3 win over Fauquier in April, Stuart hit a two-out double in the bottom of the seventh inning and then scored the winning run by sliding into home plate on a Poland single.

"It’s probably the best moment I've had softball-wise," she said. "My teammates came running out of the dugout and jumped on me.

"Unforgettable.

- - - - -

The Debbie Stuart File

Family: Father Danny is retired from the Fairfax County Parks Authority. Mother Susan works for the U.S. Geological Survey agency. David, 19, attends Lord Fairfax Community College and works construction after graduating from Kettle Run, where he played baseball and football.

Favorite music: Country. “On away games, me and Forrest [Poland] sit on the bus and share headphones and just jam out to country. It pumps her and me up.”

Favorite TV show: “Pretty Little Liars.” “Me and my mom sit down every Tuesday and watch together. I like the mystery of it.”

Favorite band: “Casting Crowns,” a Christian band. “The lyrics, people can easily relate to them.”

Game day routine: “Before every game I pray. Even though I say softball is life, I put God above anything.”

Favorite play: “Turning two. Even though it’s the hardest play to get, when you get that, it's just the best feeling."

Favorite place: Virginia Beach. “For my travel team, we usually travel there once a summer. Just being able to hear the waves crash and have my toes in the sand.”

Jersey No. 7 and 17: “It just kind of runs in the family. … My brother, he's always been 7 or 17."

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