Kaleigh Ambrose rested the green softball on her hip and peered in for the sign. She went into her windmill motion and whipped the ball toward the plate. The batter swung late and the ball thumped into catcher Emily Espinosa's mitt: strike three. Ambrose and her Lane Tech teammates ran to their dugout. She'd struck out all three Taft batters in the top of the first.
Taft was trying to upset Lane in the city high school title game Friday evening at the University of Illinois at Chicago—but that was a tall order. Lane had won the last four titles. And Lane had Ambrose.
Ambrose, a junior, played T-ball at age seven, then joined a softball league in her neighborhood, Edgebrook, when she was eight. She took pitching lessons from a coach in the western suburbs for four years. She's often pitched on her teams because they needed her to, but she says she's a better shortstop. She hit .430 this year. "I just love hitting the ball," she says.
She felt comfortable on this field, home of the UIC Flames women's team. She'd played here as a freshman in the city finals. (The finals were elsewhere last year.) The infield is smooth, the outfield lush, and there's a blue outfield wall, 210 feet from the plate both down the lines and in straightaway center. "It's beautiful, with the skyline in the background," Ambrose says. Most of the suburban teams Lane plays have manicured fields enclosed by outfield fences; Lane plays its home games on a humbler field at Horner Park without an outfield fence.
To get Ambrose to the plate as often as possible, her coach, George Stavrakas, bats her first. Leading off against Taft, Ambrose drove a fly that sailed over the left fielder's glove, and she pulled in at second. Lane's next batter bunted, the throw to first got away, and Ambrose hurried home with the game's first run.
On the pitching rubber, Ambrose looked calm. She throws hard, but not as hard as the pitchers on some of the mighty suburban teams. "My strength isn't speed, it's more movement and location," she says. She also throws a changeup and a drop curve, a pitch that dips and slides to the outside corner (to righties). "It's my secret weapon," she says.
Ambrose doesn't call her pitches herself. Espinosa, the catcher, gets signals from an assistant coach in the dugout. The first number Espinosa puts down tells Ambrose what to throw, the second number tells her where to throw it. "My coach tells me to trust him even though sometimes I would like to change the pitch," Ambrose says. Taft's batters swung late on her fastball and over her drop curve, and she retired the side in order in the second and third, with four more strikeouts.
In January and February, Ambrose and her teammates arrive at school at 6 AM three days a week for weight training and other conditioning. She and six of Lane's other starting nine play softball all summer with traveling teams. In tournaments, Ambrose has sometimes played four games in a day. "It's good to play nonstop so you don't get rusty," she says. She plans to play in college and hopes to make it as a pro.
Two weeks before this title game, Ambrose had gone to an emergency room with a pulled muscle in her neck, a pitching injury. She wore a brace for a couple of days "and then the meds started kicking in." The neck improved with a week's rest, but she missed several games, which hurt more than the injury. "I've never enjoyed watching sports," she says. "It was painful for me to just sit there."
Lane was up 4-0 when a Taft batter finally reached base in the fourth. Ambrose walked the leadoff batter, and one out later yielded her first hit, a hard grounder off the third baseman's glove. But the next batter bounced one back to Ambrose, who started a rare pitcher-to-third-to-first double play to end the threat.
In the bottom of the fourth, Ambrose sent a long fly to left center, in the direction of the Willis Tower. She sprinted around first, hoping for another double, but the ball cleared the blue wall. When she reached her cheering teammates in the dugout, Ambrose tried to bite back her smile. It was one of her few failures this evening.
She allowed only one more batter to reach base, on a single in the sixth, and wrapped up the 5-0 win with her tenth strikeout. Lane had won its fifth straight city title, its eleventh in the last 13 years. Another title looks likely next season; five of Lane's starting nine this year were freshmen, and Ambrose will be back to lead them.
"I never thought I could hit a home run over 210 feet," she said near her dugout after the game. "It made me way too excited. The next inning I threw a wild pitch, and I told myself I had to calm down. Then I got control of myself."