Marla Townsend has scoured the country’s softball fields looking for players like Caitlin Attfield.
By chance encounter, she caught the real Caitlin Attfield out of the corner of her eye.
Townsend, head coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, attended a travel tournament in Plantation, Fla., three summers ago to check up on an already committed recruit. The complex had 20 ballfields, two of which were isolated. Between innings, Townsend glanced at the adjacent diamond, where Attfield, then a junior at Niagara Wheatfield High School, was playing with her New Era Diamond Girls team.
“She comes up to bat, drops down the bunt, beats the throw to first, steals second, steals third and scores,” Townsend recalled. “Next time up, she rips a double and steals third.”
Townsend turned to her assistant coach, Holly Krzan, a former European professional player and UAB’s all-time leading run scorer. “You like challenges, Holly?” Townsend said. “Your next challenge is to get this kid on campus for a visit.”
“When we go out on the road recruiting, we have an ideal of what we want a student-athlete to bring to the table,” Townsend said last week. “We’re looking to get a Caitlin Attfield every single time. She brought everything we thought she could bring to the table and then some.”
This spring, Attfield emerged as the best player on a UAB squad that won its first Conference USA regular season championship and was the Cinderella story of the opening round of the NCAA tournament, upsetting nationally ranked UCLA and Louisville to advance to Super Regionals for the first time in school history.
Attfield batted a team-leading .359 out of the leadoff spot, started 58 games at shortstop and was named Conference USA Freshman of the Year. She ranked in the top 10 in the conference in hits (69), runs (38) and stolen bases (25).
Before Super Regionals, Attfield appeared in the show-opening promo on ESPN.
“I always watched the Super Regionals when I was younger,” Attfield said.
“At first it was kind of weird, but at the same time, it’s just another game. It’s cool to be able to play and get noticed.”
“There were many games where she was a game-changer,” Townsend said. “She was everything we expected athletically, and then the mental toughness and leadership she brought in as a freshman was tremendous.”
Attfield’s freshman year at UAB is reminiscent of four years ago, when she was the Niagara Frontier League Player of the Year as a freshman. She made the all-NFL, all-Western New York and all-state teams the next three years and was the Western New York and New York State Player of the Year in 2012. She graduated as the state’s all-time leader in stolen bases (128) and ranks second all-time in batting average (.596) and hits (248).
Attfield considered staying close to home for college and playing for Canisius, but she felt she found a second home 900 miles away when she first visited Birmingham. “I just loved the family atmosphere,” she said. “I felt if I’m going to go far away, it had to feel like home.”
No other player on the roster hails from a state north of South Carolina, and it sure doesn’t feel like home when the Blazers are practicing outside in February, but Attfield has found Southern hospitality to be more than just an expression. “Everyone is super friendly,” she said.
“We promised her a family atmosphere,” Townsend said, “and we delivered on that.”
Focused on training
Always as shy away from the diamond as she was precocious on it, Attfield is starting to open up around her teammates, Townsend said.
“It’s fun to watch the way they interact with each other. They have a running joke that if she says anything, they say, ‘Coach, Coach, Atty is yelling at me!’ ” Townsend said. “And that’s off the field. On the field, she’s just a nonstop communicator.”
Upon returning home last week, Attfield went immediately to watch Niagara Wheatfield’s sectional playoff game. She is on strict orders from Townsend not to do any softball-related activity for the first two weeks of her vacation. “Watching softball kind of makes me want to go out and play softball,” she said. “But it has been relaxing.”
Attfield said she will play a couple of tournaments with New Era this summer but will focus much of her time on training to get faster and hit for more power.
“Sophomore year can be tough for some people,” Townsend said. “We’ve seen people have a lot of success as a freshman, and then teams figure them out. I don’t think that’ll happen with Caitlin. I think she can handle everything we put in front of her.”