Hitting comes naturally for Coatesville's Ashley Mendenhall

Coatesville senior catcher Ashley Mendenhall catches the game against Oxford on Monday, May 15. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

About five minutes from Coatesville High School, just off Monacy Road, is where you could frequently find Ashley Mendenhall when she was younger.

She was in her backyard, although it is more like a field, the senior said.

Sometimes her dad, Bill, made her, she says now, laughing.

"Go out and practice," he'd tell her.

Other times, he'd take a bucket of softballs out with her, and they'd practice together.

Often, though, it would be Mendenhall's idea.

"I think I'm going to go hit," she would say before venturing outside to the net and tee.

Eventually, she had to stop the routine because she hit the balls too far. They'd fly off her bat and vanish into the high grass or get stuck between the trees. She lost too many softballs like that.

With that kind of power it's obvious that offense has always been Mendenhall's favorite part of the game.

"When I was younger I wasn't the best catcher," she said. "But I always found a way to get myself in the lineup. I liked hitting so much and practiced it the most. I got recognition for hitting when I was little, and so I kept working on it."

The work paid off as the La Salle recruit is batting .500 with 35 hits - 20 of which went for extra bases, including nine home runs - 37 RBIs and 28 runs. She also has an on-base percentage over .500 and a slugging percentage of 1.042.

Those are numbers that make her dad - and coach - very proud.

"She recognizes herself what's going on and makes adjustments," Bill Mendenhall said. "She's the kid who wants to be at bat in key situations. She's the kid who wants to be at the plate to drive runs in. She's producing immensely for us at this point."

An example is the Red Raiders (16-4) league battle against Downingtown East, in which the team gave up the lead in the seventh inning.

No sweat.

Mendenhall was due up first in the bottom of the inning. Before she even walked to the plate, parents in the stands were confident the game was over, positive she'd win it for them.

What did she do?

She hit a walk-off home run.

But it's not just in the batter's box where she is making her mark. She has been consistently solid behind the plate, too, with a fielding percentage of .980.

"I can't say enough about what she does for us defensively," Bill Mendenhall said. "Pitchers aren't afraid to throw the ball. Sometimes she picks the ball likes she's playing first base. She pretty much controls everything. Opposing teams are not likely to steal because of the amount of kids she is able to throw out.

"She's like a pitching coach. If a pitcher gets out of sorts, she'll help make adjustments. The kids enjoy throwing to her because you realize what she is able to do with framing pitches, making them look better. She also receives the ball well, has high ability behind the plate, and very few things get by her. That's not even getting into her leadership as a captain."

After winning the Ches-Mont National Division for the first time since 1985 behind an explosive offensive lineup, Ashley Mendenhall has her sights set on something bigger - winning a District 1 playoff game for the first time in her career.

And then there's the reality of playing her final game under the helm of her dad, who has coached her and the majority of her teammates in some capacity since Little League.

"It's exciting. It's sad," Ashley Mendenhall said. "I'm excited for this next four years at La Salle, but it's going to be different not having him as a coach. Uncertainty is what it is going to look like. My high school career, playing for him as my coach is coming to an end. It's a good change, though, and I'll get to experience something new."

These days, Bill Mendenhall doesn't need to tell Ashley to go outside and practice. He doesn't need to ask her to go hit or grab the bucket of balls himself.

He gets to watch from the third-base line as the balls ricochet off her bat and disappear.

Not into high grass.

Not scattered between trees.

These softballs disappear over fences.