COVINGTON, Ga. — When Natalie Ray approaches the batter’s box, you can feel Eastside fans getting anxious.
Sometimes you can hear opposing fans shouting out things like, “big stick” and “be ready.” Even pitchers seem to be more mindful of hitting their spots and pulling out their best stuff while staring down Ray from the circle.
The most impressive thing about all of this? Ray is just a freshman for the Eastside Eagles’ softball team. But despite her youth, Lady Eagles coach Heather Wood makes no bones about how integral Ray’s play has been to Region 4-AAAA runners-up Eastside’s success.
“Offensively, she’s been an absolutely huge part of our lineup,” Wood said. “Natalie’s a great hitter. She’s a smart hitter. She’s faced some of the best players in the country, and that’s only made her better.”
Despite being a freshman, because of Ray’s time playing travel ball with the Atlanta Vipers, she’s already proven herself against NCAA Power Five caliber softball talents. With the Vipers, she’s played alongside Lauren Burnett — another Eastside freshman — and while Burnett was committing to Georgia back in January, Ray was being lauded by Vipers coach Tim Trowell as being “perhaps just as good” while picking up recruiting attention from the likes of Georgia Tech and Florida State.
This past week, Ray faced off against Hampton pitcher Skylar Trahan. And although Trahan essentially shut down Eastside’s bats through two region tournament games, Ray was responsible for the Eagles’ only run scored in either game.
Ray was hit with a pitch in the first inning of the first game, and Kailey Rusk brought her home from second with a RBI single that gave Eastside a 1-0 lead.
“It just shows that she’s a huge asset to us, offensively, yes, but also how she runs the bases,” Wood said. Having the speed she has and how smart she is out there, she’s really been a major part of what we do offensively in a lot of ways.”
Ray battled a couple of times with Trahan, but although she didn’t have the statistical success she wanted, she feels like she’s more prepared for what she may face if Eastside makes it to Columbus for a second straight year.
“(Trahan) will be the best girl we’ll see in a long time,” she said. “But I believe it will help us in the long run, because we’ll probably be seeing good pitching like that the rest of the way.”
That doesn’t scare her. Ray’s been around quality softball long enough to not be too taken aback by talented high school players. She’s been playing the game since age five. She also watched big sister Caitlyn Ray star at Eastside for four years. Ray now plays for Georgia State.
The one thing that does raise her anxiety a bit is knowing that she’s already being pursued by big time college softball programs.
“It’s pretty cool and scary at the same time,” she said. “Just knowing that this early in my career, people are already looking at me this way, and if I do something to myself to hurt myself, it could end for me early.”
Even if Ray does face some sort of obstacle or hardship over the next three years, she feels like she’s been given the tools needed through coaches and family to overcome it and be successful.
“I mean, I feel pretty accomplished to be able to be where I am so young,” she said. “I play with a great group of girls on our team. And starting as a freshman is not really normal for most kids. But I’ve had good coaches and a good parent and a good dad who’s disciplined me all my life in order to make me good.”
She said defense is the thing that she really hones in on now, as well as continuing to perfect her skills at the plate and on the base paths. But one thing she hasn’t had to worry about this season is fitting in as a freshman with a more seasoned group of girls.
“They’ve all been so welcoming,” Ray said. “They’re like the best group of seniors and juniors I’ve ever come across.”
And knowing she has the trust of her coach also adds to the stress relief, freeing her up to play her best ball without worrying too much about making mistakes.
“Knowing what coach Wood says about me, it really does relieve pressure as a freshman,” she said. “Knowing I don’t have to always be so big and that I still have three years of high school left helps me relax and know that I still can have time to get better as I get older.”