PHU junior Dani Hofer, who committed to the game at an early age, is the Times player of the year.
Her first pitch was a strike.
At least that's what Dani Hofer's grandfather and father told her.
She was about six years old, playing around in the backyard, imitating her older sister who was already playing little league. Hofer leaned back and wound-up just like the big girls.
"Her first one was a windmill, not underhand," her father Ed Hofer said, years later still sounding a little amazed. "We didn't think she paid that much attention at the field."
Eleven years later Hofer has come a long way from the little girl who wanted to show off for her family. Just off her junior season at Palm Harbor University, she's got a gold medal from PHU's Class 5A state title and some wicked numbers to match. Hofer's (22-2) arm played an invaluable role in winning a title for the Hurricanes. Her stats: 381 strikeouts, 16 shutouts, and a 0.13 ERA.
And her bat wasn't bad either. Hofer led the Hurricanes in hitting at .419 and was Pinellas County's leader in doubles (11) and RBIs (36). It all adds up to her being the Times All-Suncoast Player of the Year.
Hofer decided early on softball. At 8 she was playing on a 10-and-under travel team. Around the same time, Ed set-up a batting cage/pitching mound in the backyard so his daughters could practice whenever they wanted. And at 14 Hofer was pitching for an 18-and-under travel team. Last summer she helped her Lady Bombers 18-and-under team win a PONY national championship. She gave up club soccer to commit more time to softball.
"I knew I wanted to play softball," Hofer said. "It was kind of easy to give (soccer) up because I knew I wanted to be the best."
To be the best, she started to pattern herself after her favorite player, two-time Olympic gold medalist pitcher Michele Smith. When Hofer was 13, she religiously studied Smith's 1988 instructional pitching video. While there were always pitching coaches, Hofer was comfortable watching Smith demonstrate her grips on screen.
"I relate a lot of things to her rise and curve were her two pitches," Hofer said. "We have the same body type, same way of throwing. The way she did it was the way it worked for me."
Hofer, who averaged 18.6 strikeouts this season, can still get hung up on technique. Her cure is going back to the Smith tape.
"Every now and then I go back and look at it again," and she'll see, "Oh, that's what I'm doing wrong."
A few years ago, the image on the screen became a three-dimensional person when Hofer took a couple of private pitching lessons with Smith.
"It was like meeting a superstar," Hofer said. "I felt really privileged that she came to watch me pitch."
Hofer has been focused on softball for much of her 17 years and her father Ed has always been her coach in some capacity. Until high school, he was her only head coach and although he stills calls pitches for her, he said he's going to stop this season and let her be more independent. But Ed says his daughter pushes herself and he lets her proceed at her own speed.
"I let Dani guide her way through this," Ed said. "I never thought I'd be the one who'd have to tell her to back off."
Near the end of this summer, Hofer will polish up her fourth pitch, the drop ball, which PHU coach Chuck Poetter says she "won't be happy until it's a dominating pitch." While she's constantly working on being a better pitcher, Hofer says she doesn't set goals. She just wants to make sure each time she gets a little better and hopefully there's a college scholarship waiting at the end of her senior season next year.
The signs of her success are all over the place. More movement, more strikeouts, more wins, a state title and the most obvious sign for her: "A lot of people come up to me and tell me I'm a good pitcher," Hofer said. "That let's me know I'm a good pitcher."