Central softball slugger Raegan Willis says time on bench while injured was humbling experience _lowres

Raegan Willis leads Central with a .552 batting average and has 38 RBIs on 32 hits this season. Despite missing the first six weeks of the season.

Last year, Raegan Willis was like many high school freshmen star athletes.

While Willis was making a name for herself as a power hitter at Central, she said she would look down on some of her teammates who maybe didn’t have as much success.

“Last year, I thought if you didn’t start, you can go and leave,” Willis said.

But then, Willis found herself sitting on the bench with a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in her throwing arm.

The Central catcher sat on a bucket next to coach Michelle Efferson in the dugout for the first six weeks of the season, watching her team play without her and her best friend take her spot behind home plate.

By the time she returned to the diamond, Willis was a different person. She realized the value of the team as a whole instead of just nine individuals on the field, and that bench players can contribute as much as starters.

And with that new perspective, she got to work.

“She is not one to sit out,” Efferson said. “She does not have the patience to do that. It was a big adjustment to make Raegan sit back and watch because that’s something she’s never had to do her entire life.

“From her getting to sit back and watch, she learned a lot about our team, so when it was time to come back, she fit right in.”

Efferson said she was slow to bring Willis back from the injury, opting to put her at the designated player spot until she could earn the starting catching job.

What hasn’t been slow is Willis’ bat. She leads Central with a .552 batting average and has 38 RBIs on 32 hits this season. But it’s her 10 home runs and 1.207 slugging percentage that really makes her stand out.

Despite missing about a month of the season, it appears the Wildcats’ most devastating weapon on offense has returned stronger than ever — and that’s saying something.

On top of being one of the better softball hitters in the state, Willis is also a state champion powerlifter, earning the title last year in the 165-pound weight class.

She missed the state meet this year, but rebounded at a national meet with lifts of 450 pounds in the squat, 220 pounds on bench press and 470 pounds on deadlift.

“My coach always said, ‘If you take two people with the same hand-eye coordination, the stronger one is going to hit the ball further,’ ” Willis said. “So when you’re working out, you’re not only working out for powerlifting, but also so whenever (softball) needs you to hit a ball over the fence, you can definitely hit the ball over the fence.”

That strength has helped produce what Central hitting coach Len Devall said is one of the most powerful swings he’s ever seen.

So often does Willis hit home runs in practice, it isn’t uncommon to hear car alarms going off in the parking lot behind the outfield wall when she takes batting practice.

“She’s the only one I’ve ever heard the ball whistle coming off the bat,” Devall said. “You can hear the ball leaving the park.”

Willis said her throwing arm has healed 100 percent by now, which is good, because No. 8 Central will need her to be at her best when they play top-seeded Alexandria in a Class 5A quarterfinal at the state softball tournament Friday in Sulphur. It’s the first time the Wildcats have made the tournament since 2010.

Willis isn’t worried, though, the injury may have humbled her, but she still keeps a competitive edge.

Occasionally, after practice, the Wildcats will play a round of home run derby to see who can hit the most balls over the fence.

Has Willis ever lost?

“Absolutely not,” she said.