Barn tryout changes lives of softball player and family

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Haven Payne Reece today with her daughter enjoying a football Friday night at Pisgah High School.
Haven Payne Reece today with her daughter enjoying a football Friday night at Pisgah High School.

David Payne was a logger by trade and he had carved out a nice livelihood for himself, wife Juanita and two daughters in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The first time I saw David was in 2004 and it wasn’t in the woods or at a sawmill.  We met one another at a high school softball playoff game in late May at Enka High School in Candler, N.C.

While I was walking around the ballpark, as we high school sports scouts tend to do prior to a game, a fairly stout fellow about 6 feet tall stopped me along the fence bordering the left-field foul line.  At first glance, some might venture he had hit on hard times.  He was wearing faded overalls that were far from clean and a short sleeve, cotton shirt that had been worn so man times it was nearly threadbare.  What had once been a white undershirt had turned brownish gray from steady use.  He had the expression of a man who had been through a hard day’s work.  His shoes were the heavy, brown leather kind you see men wear who ply their trade outdoors.  They were scuffed and had dried mud along the soles.  The hand he stuck forward for me to shake had enough dirt under the fingernails to fill a small Dixie cup.  His cap had the word “Poulan” printed across the front, but it was so grimy that I could hardly make out the name.  Being camouflaged didn’t help.

All this was familiar to me from way back.  Growing up in rural Southside Virginia, I’d known lots of men just like this salt-of-the-Earth man, so his appearance wasn’t weird to me at all.  In fact, I instantly had a healthy degree of respect for him.  As things turned out, our meeting was fortuitous.

“My name is David Payne,” he said while removing his cap and tilting his head downward slightly.  It’s a gesture we used to see everywhere in the South back in the day, but you don’t see much anymore.  It was a sign of respect and good manners.  I was impressed.  He didn’t waste any time getting right to the point.

“My daughter is a pitcher for Pisgah,” he stated.  “She’s a junior and a pretty good little ball player.  I was wondering if you would take a look at her.  Her name is Haven.”

“Mr. Payne, I’d be happy to.  When do her travel team practices start?  I can come by then and see her,” I replied.

“Well, that’s not for a couple of weeks.  How ’bout if you stop by the house and watch her pitch.  She can play anywhere at all, and when she’s not pitching, she usually plays shortstop.  But pitching is her best position.  Could you stop by this week?” he asked.

I looked at him, a bit puzzled by the invitation, but anyone who would drive 20 miles to a ballgame just to look me up was serious and I took it that way.  If I denied this invitation, I suspected, that would be the end of the opportunity for both Haven and me.

“I’d be happy to come over Thursday night,” which was two days later.

He gave me his address and directions to his house.  GPS was not yet widely used, but I’d just bought a Garmin a few days earlier and was anxious to give it a go.  We set a time and agreed to meet.

When I drove up to the Payne home, I looked around to see where Haven might pitch for me, but there was no home plate or pitching rubber visible.  The house was what we call a double-wide — two trailers put together to make a larger home.  It was white, looked to be fairly new and had cinder-block front steps stacked up in three rows to the front door.  The house was positioned in what at one time had to be a pasture.  A barbed wire fence had been moved to around behind the house, 50 feet or so, and a children’s swing set stood lifelessly between the back of the house and the fenced-in pasture.  A dozen or so cattle were grazing in the day’s fading light.

To the right of the house, about 50 yards up a slight incline was a wood barn.  It was old, never been painted, but in good shape by outward appearances.  The property was well maintained — no high weeds along the fence posts, barn’s foundation or around the house.  The dirt driveway to the house cut between the barn and the Payne’s house.  The house and barn sat in a little depression between two rises that were covered with the lushness of late spring.  Wild flowers dotted the landscape along with dark green grasses and the occasional hardwood tree.

David opened the front door and emerged from the house as I shut off the car engine.  He took a long step down to the first row of cinder blocks, then a shorter one to the second and finally the ground.  He waved.  David looked like an entirely different person.  All cleaned up for our meeting, he wore a clean pair of jeans, ironed at that, with everything else, absent the overalls, pretty much the same as our first encounter, but newer.  He wasn’t wearing a cap.

Behind him followed a young girl I assumed was Haven. Painfully shy, she hardly raised her head to make ever so brief eye contact when her dad introduced her to me.  She was a dark-haired girl of 16 or 17. Her hair fell to her shoulders.  It was straight with natural curls on the ends.  She may have been 5-5 but her short sleeves revealed some unexpected muscles on her arms.  That wasn’t uncommon for a girl who lived on a working farm, however.  At some point in the day, everybody in the family chipped in here and there by doing this or that chore.  Haven’s job was milking three cows every morning and evening.  Anybody who’s ever pulled on a cow’s teat and tried to coax milk from it will confirm that it will produce strong hands and arms like Haven’s.  She held two gloves and a softball in her arms.

We exchanged greetings and pleasantries as is the Southern custom.  “Where’s she going to throw?” I asked.

“Follow me,” said David, striding toward the barn.

As we walked, I made small talk about the farm and livestock.  In the South, if you go on a man’s farm, you’re wise not to dally in complimenting his place for risk of offending him.  Once at the 10-foot-high door hanging from a long, steel track, he tugged it open to reveal a home plate about six feet in front of us and a pitching rubber about halfway up through the barn.  I presumed it was the proper distance for regulation high school softball.  Regardless, this was not the time to question the man’s integrity on such trivial matters.   David reached over to the barn wall and flipped on a light switch turning on four, overhead light bulbs hanging by wires from the rafters above.  They were at least 100 watts and most likely 150 to light up the place as brightly as they did.  The three of us looked at one another, smiled and said nothing.  For some reason, they already knew that I was entirely comfortable in this setting and made no attempt at explaining it or making excuses for it.  Nor did David have to tell me that the barn gave them a cool place in the summer and a warm place in the winter to practice.  It was a necessity of invention.

David nodded to Haven toward the pitching rubber and said, “Let’s get warmed up now.”  She did as told and walked, glove and ball in hand, to the appointed spot while David sat behind home plate on a white plastic bucket with his mitt at the ready.  I leaned against a stall door halfway between them, not saying a word.

As Haven commenced to throw pitches, it was apparent that she had excellent focus.  Outwardly at least, she wasn’t intimidated by the scenario.  This was no ordinary practice session and she knew it.  Over the next half hour, a college scout (that would be me) would determine if she had the skills to pitch in college.  She was into it, as was David, and truthfully, so was I.  This would be a defining moment for Haven and her family and its importance wasn’t lost on me.

When she had completed her warm-up, David asked, “Are you ready?”  She nodded and went to work hurling the neon yellow softball underhanded and windmill style, pitch after pitch, to her dad.  For 30 minutes she hit the target David gave her time after time.  Fastball, curve, drop, rise, change-up.  No matter what David asked her to throw, the ball landed in his glove with a loud smack.  The girl could pitch.

Meanwhile, I moved around from behind her to behind David in an attempt to see the kind of movement she had on the ball.  Not bad.  Not great, but not bad by any means.  A couple of times I asked her to repeat the same pitch and to take a little speed off the ball or to throw it harder.  The impressive thing was that Haven did not stress over any of it which told me that in a pinch this girl would stay locked on regardless of the game situation.

After a little more than a half hour, I said, “I’m good, if you are Haven.”

She said, “Yes, sir.”

The three of us gathered at the barn door, Haven sweating profusely and David grinning with pride.  He knew she had done well.  The anticipation in both of them was almost palpable.  Then I said, “Haven, there is no question in my mind that you can pitch in college.  Pitch command is really very good and you have superb control.  You are throwing your fastball in the high 50s, so right now you could pitch for a D-III or NAIA school.  If you raise your speed a mile or two per hour and get a tad more movement on your drop and rise ball, you would have a shot at going D-II.  But if you wan to get college-ready, I suggest that you stop throwing the curve and focus on your rise, drop and change.  In college, you will seldom get a fastball by a hitter, regardless of the speed, so movement is everything to a coach.  The more movement you can produce, the more valuable you are to the team.”

Haven and David looked at each other and smiled.  David then said, “OK, let’s go inside and get this done,” referring to enrolling Haven with me and NSR.

We went inside and finished the business side of my visit.  From that moment on, Haven was an even more determined player than when I had initially seen her.  During travel ball season she consistently threw well from the circle and hit nearly .400, although it must be said that her mother kept what I would call a liberal scorebook.  With that in mind, I assumed Haven was closer to the low- to mid-.300 mark.  No matter, she had a great summer.

The following spring she led the Pisgah High School softball team to the state playoffs, getting knocked out in the second round by a team from Bandys High School near Hickory.  By then she had visited several college campuses, met the coaches and eventually decided to attend Montreat College in Black Mountain, N.C., an NAIA institution.  She went on to make All-Conference three of her four years and earn her business degree.

Haven became the first member of her family to get a college diploma and it all started with a father who decided that it was time to forever change the course of his family’s path.  His plan worked, too.  Haven’s sister followed in her footsteps, also earning a college degree.  Changing lives is the mantra of an NSR scout.  We live for these life-changing opportunities. When they come, we jump at them without reservation because to alter an athlete’s life in such a positive way is an accomplishment which lives on long after the athlete’s competitive career ends.

In Haven Payne’s case, a tryout in a countryside barn offered the hope and opportunity for her to lift up her family and take them in a different direction.  She did both.

National Scouting Report is dedicated to finding scholarship opportunities for athletes who possess the talent, desire, and motivation to compete at the collegiate level. We’ve helped connect thousands of athletes with their perfect college.

If you are ready to take your recruiting to the next level, click the Get Scouted button below to be evaluated by an NSR College Scout.

Get Scouted  Scouting Careers

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