COVINGTON, Ga. — Kyla Stroud is the kind of softball player who makes you take notice of her diamond prowess with both your eyes and ears.
At least that’s how coach Chuck Lewis explains it.
Lewis is Stroud’s travel ball coach with the Georgia Impact 05 Lewis squad. He’s coached the team for four years. Stroud, also a seventh grader at Cousins Middle, has been with him for three, and he still remembers the first time he saw — and heard — how special Stroud would be.
“Three years ago, Kyla was playing in our state tournament in Dalton,” Lewis said. “She hit a ball that cleared two fences and landed in a playground. We saw the power in it, but heard it too. Every time she hits the ball, whether in the cages or in a game, people notice. It’s a different sound to it. That particular hit went 200-plus feet. She was nine or 10 years old at that time, and to hit that far was just unthought of.”
That hit sent the crowd into a bit of a frenzy.
“Everybody in the park who saw it was in awe,” he said. “There are gonna be certain kids that play this sport, especially down here in the southeast, who have so much talent. But then there’s that one percent kid who stands out head and shoulders above the rest. That’s Kyla, and I think that day people started to notice it.”
Auburn would soon come to notice it also. That’s why the Tigers’ softball program — along with about a half dozen other Division I powers like Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma, along with Washington and Georgia Tech — offered her a scholarship. As a seventh grader.
And this past weekend, Stroud decided to give Auburn her verbal commitment.
“Whenever I went to Auburn for visits or camps or even the Iron Bowl, it just felt like home to me,” Stroud said. “It hit me in the heart.”
Kyla’s father Horace Stroud may have had a little something to do with her heart’s natural bend toward War Eagle Nation. The elder Stroud is the Newton County Recreation Administrator for Athletics. Before that, he was a running back at Auburn from 1988-1991.
And although Horace has some pride about the fact that his daughter seems poised to follow in his footsteps, he also made sure to stress that her decision was her own.
“I told her that I went to Auburn because that fit me,” Horace said. “Don’t go because I went. Go because you love Auburn and it’s gonna fit you. At the end of the day, we’re gonna drop you off and you’ve gotta be the one who likes it.”
To be sure, she’s gotten a bit of a head start in liking it. Horace Stroud said he has pictures of his Kyla dressed up in Auburn gear as early as two days old. But Kyla corroborates the account of her father not wanting her choice to be about him, and she insists it’s not.
“He didn’t want me to go there because he went there,” she said. “He wanted me to go there for myself, and that’s why I chose it. It really feels like where I should be.”
To see Kyla play, you’ll quickly know that Auburn’s offer wasn’t made on a whim. Ellis can testify that Kyla’s Division I caliber talent is legit, even despite her youth.
“I get to see her in the cages as well as on the field,” Ellis said. “Just the speed of the swing and combination with power is just amazing. Every SEC coach, and even some others notice her right off at camps.”
But it’s more than the athleticism that has impressed Ellis and much of the Southeast college softball world.
“It’s not just athletically with Kyla or just physically,” Ellis said. “It’s mentally as well. She’s hitting, in middle school like she’s a high schooler. But she’s also so much more mature.”
Ellis has seen softball prodigies before. Stroud is the second player from his team to give a Division I pledge. A little while ago, Ellis saw a sixth grader give a verbal to Florida. He said these early commitments, while somewhat rare, are becoming more common.
“Coaches are realizing that if they don’t jump on board and go after these kids, even at that age, someone else will.”
The reality is, though, that Kyla has five years before college comes calling. Horace knows this, which is why he still takes his daughters commit with a small grain of salt.
“I’m confident in her choice, but I also have some nerves,” Horace Stroud said. “I’m always going to have concerns. I know the bullseye is on her now. I know people can sometimes be hateful. But we know (Auburn) coach (Mickey) Dean sees her as a cornerstone of the class, and he really wants her to be a part of Auburn University. She’s a legacy prospect and now a legacy commit.”
Although the commitment and all the attention has been exciting for her, there’s a business about the game of softball that Kyla’s settled into. And continuing to just enjoy the game she’s been in love with since her formative years will keep her grounded.
“I started playing when I was four years old,” she said. “I just picked up a bat and felt like this sport was part of me being the person that I am. Softball is for me, and it’s what I want to do. I’ll put the commitment stuff aside for now. There’s always going to be hate from others and challenges, but I’ll just keep doing me and striving to be my best.”