By Rob Centorani
Dropping jaws with stellar plays in the field or long home runs has been commonplace for Jessie Winans since joining Afton's softball team as a seventh-grader.
This past season, she even did it to herself.
"Oh yeah, I was definitely surprised," junior shortstop Winans said of the numbers she put up this season, including a .533 batting average, 13 home runs and 42 RBIs. "I don't like knowing my batting average, but I read the paper late in the season and my mouth just dropped. I didn't know (my numbers) were that high."
Suffice to say, Winans had the best of both worlds in 2009.
Not only did she have another incredible season as an individual, but Afton _ losers in each of the last four Class D state title games _ won its first state championship since 2002.
On the final day of the 2008 softball season, Winans hit two home runs for the Crimson Knights, who fell, 4-2, to Chapel Field in eight innings in the Class D state final.
"(The home runs) made me happy," she said after the 2008 loss to Chapel Field, "but I'd give up both of those home runs to win this championship."
Three weeks ago, Winans & Co. finally earned the school's elusive seventh state championship. Winans didn't have to give up her power, though. Her fifth-inning home run, a shot estimated at 240 feet, gave the Crimson Knights a six-run lead en route to a 7-4 victory over Batavia Notre Dame in the Class D final June 13 at Waterloo High.
"I'm a state champion and I don't think that feeling ever goes away," Winans said. "It's something nice to brag about. It's an amazing feeling and it won't go away."
Winans' homer in the state final marked her 13th of the season.
"She might be the best to ever come out of this area," said Afton coach Cindy Bostelman, The Daily Star's co-Coach of the Year with Oneonta High's Randy Brockway.
Not surprisingly, Winans earned her second straight Class D Player of the Year honor. She also gained her fourth straight Daily Star Player of the Year award, something one other area athlete has accomplished since this newspaper started naming player of the years in 1983 _ 2006 Sidney graduate Katelyn Guerriere, the Daily Star's Female Track Athlete of the Year from 2003-06.
Winans is the lone area athlete to earn four outright Daily Star Player of the Year honors, though, as Guerriere twice shared the honor with former teammate Amanda Haney (2003-04).
And Winans still has one year left.
To those naysayers who think Winans' accomplishments have come simply because she plays in the lowest of New York's five classifications or because this area is traditionally weak in softball, think again.
You'd have to search long and wide to find a coach or fan in Section Four _ or possibly the state, for that matter _ who could point to a better position player than Winans.
"I never realized she was as good as she is," said Dale Cook, Winans' coach this summer for the Conklin Raiders who also coached Susquehanna Valley to five Class B state titles before taking over at Binghamton High this past season. "She's the best shortstop I've ever coached and I've had quite a few, including Whitney Williams, who's playing at UMass.
"I think she's one of the best players on the East Coast, to be honest," he continued. "She's that special."
Cook said of Winans' defensive prowess: "I've never seen a kid cover so much ground and get rid of it as quickly as she does. Her ability to move and then when she receives it, it's gone immediately."
The Division I offers already have begun to pour in for Winans, a strong-armed shortstop who also excels in field hockey and basketball. Wednesday marked the first day college coaches could begin formal talks with Winans about her future.
"I really want to be the one girl who goes big," said Winans, who has hit 34 home runs _ including 11 as a freshman _ and driven in 180 runs over five varsity seasons. "My friends and family know how good I am. I want to go somewhere very good, to a good program with good coaches."
One of Winans' best plays this season came not from her shortstop position _ where her arm strength and agility are unmatched in these parts _ or at the plate. Instead, it came as a baserunner.
She had just given Afton a one-run lead with a two-run double in what turned out to be a 9-4 victory over Deposit on June 6 that clinched the program's 15th straight Section Four Class D title.
Teammate and cousin Ashley Winans followed with a comebacker that deflected off pitcher Melissa Martin and directly to Lumberjacks second baseman Tara Mason, who easily threw out Ashley Winans at first.
Jessie Winans hustled to third on the play and, after slowing briefly to see how things were unfolding, sprinted toward home. Deposit first baseman Darsey Raymond made an accurate throw to catcher Chelsea Russell, but Winans slid through the batter's box and slapped the plate with her left hand while avoiding the tag to give Afton a 5-3 lead.
"It just speaks to her ability," Deposit coach Ed Swartwout said that day. "Anyone who has watched this game the past five or six years knows she's a phenomenal player. She could possibly be the best female high school athlete that I've ever seen. She's special."
Added Bostelman: "A lot of kids would come into third and hold, but I give the opportunity to freelance on the bases and she can make things happen."
Winans makes things happen year-round, too.
In addition to competing for the Conklin Raiders travel softball team during the summer and fall, Winans also plays field hockey and was a sixth-team all-state selection in basketball this past season.
"I think being active and to keep playing sports is important," said Winans, who also had seven triples, three doubles and 44 runs this past season. "I'm always outside and I'm always playing sports with my brothers. It's nice to not be a one-sport person."
As for Afton's title this season, this didn't appear to be the year its seven-year state-championship drought would end.
Pitcher Morgan Muller, now playing for Oneonta State, graduated in 2008 after leading the Crimson Knights to three straight appearances in the Class D finals.
Ashley Winans, a first baseman last season, stepped in and went 23-2 with 248 strikeouts and 45 walks to earn her second straight Daily Star First Team All-Star honor.
Winans' biggest performance came in a 1-0 state quarterfinal victory over Section Three champion Stockbridge Valley. She struck out 13 and walked none in a one-hitter.
"At one time in the season, she came to me and said, Why don't we let the younger kid (seventh-grader Payton Cutting) pitch?'" Bostelman said of Ashley Winans. "She came back the next day and said, I'll give it a shot and see what I can do.'"
With Jessie Winans and fellow first-teamers Jennifer Boudreau (senior center fielder), Stephanie Parsons (junior second baseman) and Stephanie Sherman (junior left fielder) leading the way, Afton outscored seven postseason opponents, 59-11.
"It wasn't that we had more talent (than previous years), it was the way they came together," said Bostelman, who earned her 11th Daily Star coaching honor. "That's a lot of the game. You have to make due with what you've got. Whatever I have, that's what I have. You have to make it work, like a puzzle. You have to make sure everything fits. This group came together at the perfect time."
In describing Bostelman, Jessie Winans said: "I think her knowledge of the game and the fact that she puts 110 percent into the game, she's just so focused. She's so good as a coach and she puts all of her life into the game of softball. Softball is her family and she couldn't live without it."
As for Oneonta, turnaround seasons don't get much better than the one the Yellowjackets had in 2009.
At first glance, their 13-9 record might not seem that impressive. But when one factors the league in which Oneonta plays and the struggles the program has endured for decades, it's big.
Over the previous two seasons, the Yellowjackets won a combined five Southern Tier Athletic Conference games _ four of those coming against a downtrodden Norwich program.
This season, however, OHS knocked off defending Class B state champion Windsor, twice beat perennial Class C power Seton Catholic Central and also had wins against Johnson City, Whitney Point and Chenango Forks during the regular season _ teams it has had almost no success against since re-joining STAC in 2002.
The Yellowjackets went 8-6 in STAC, annually one of the strongest softball conferences in the state.
"It was certainly very big for us," third-year coach Brockway said. "Originally, I thought .500 was a realistic goal. We just worked hard and started winning some games we didn't realize were possible. The girls practiced hard and worked together. It was a pleasant surprise and a pleasure to watch them."
But the signature victory came in a Section Four Class B quarterfinal against Susquehanna Valley on June 2. Against a squad that had won six Class B state titles since 1996 and a team that defeated the Jackets twice during the regular season by a combined 13-1, third-year varsity pitcher Lesley Harlem _ a fifth-team all-state selection in Class B _ threw a five-hitter in a 3-1 victory.
The victory represented Oneonta's first in sectional play since 1997 _ when the Jackets earned a 5-4 quarterfinal win over Maine-Endwell _ and second overall.
Harlem's batterymate, sophomore Erin Wolstenholme, doubled and scored twice, and sophomore Sienna Wisse had an RBI double against the Sabers.
"That was really big," said Brockway, whose team was led by Daily Star first-teamers Harlem, Wolstenholme and Katie Bredin, a junior shortstop. "SV has always been elusive for us. They've had some great teams and a lot of past history there. For us to go in there and shut them down was a huge accomplishment."
If the step OHS took this season was surprising, success might be expected next season.
The Yellowjackets' lineup against SV included two seniors _ twin sisters Bridgette and Andrea Aikens, who played center field and first base, respectively. Juniors Harlem, Bredin and second baseman Kaitlyn O'Connor; sophomores Wolstenholme and third baseman Wisse; freshman designated hitter Brianna Georgia; and eighth-graders Brianna Haines (right field) and Hayley Dower (center field) are all expected to return in 2010.
"We've put STAC in a position where its forced to be prepared and ready to play us," Brockway said. "Bridgette and Andrea helped us out for sure, but the girls' mentality has to be that we only lost two players and we still had two eighth-graders starting most games. We should be better next year."
Rob Centorani can be reached at email@example.com or 607-432-1000, ext. 209.