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Quick-footed IU recruit gears up for final season with Center Grove

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You can’t coach speed.

Any coach knows that, and that’s OK, so long as he or she has athletes who can get from Point A to Point B in the minimum amount of time. The more speed, the better.

Longtime Center Grove High School softball coach Russ Milligan has a senior who’s not only a stellar athlete but one who’s entirely coachable — often within herself — in outfielder Sarah Thompson.

But only for one more season. Then she will be wearing cream and crimson in place of scarlet and white.

In mid-November, Thompson signed a national letter of intent to attend and play softball for Indiana University. She caught the eye of IU head coach Michelle Gardner while playing in travel team tournaments as well as in her regular high school games.

Gardner is eager to see Thompson be a Hurryin’ Hoosier — in the literal sense — on the base paths and in the outfield.

“Sarah obviously is a very talented player,” the sixth-year Indiana coach said. “She adds a lot of speed to our lineup.”

Thompson expects going to Bloomington will be as comfortable of a fit has her own mitt. And she’ll be joining a former high school teammate, Natalie Lalich, now a freshman there.

“I really like the coach, the players and the atmosphere at IU,” Thompson said. “I always wanted to play Division I, and I always wanted to go to a big school.”

The senior will be coming from a big high school, where she’s a three-year starter — mostly in center field.

For her high school career, she owns a .496 batting average, totaling 162 hits and 100 runs scored in 78 contests. She batted a team-best .523 as a freshman.

Thompson has earned Academic All-Conference honors three times and was an All-Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference selection in 2013 and All-District 4 honoree the past two seasons.

She’s helped the Trojans amass a sterling record of 69-9 and a trio of MIC championships in her first three seasons.

Gardner regards her recruit as a “triple threat” at the plate and likes her ability to cover ground in the outfield.

Thompson throws right-handed but bats from the left side of the plate, where she can bunt, slap-hit or swing away with equal effectiveness.

She’s especially deadly at slap hitting, considering a batter practically has a running start to first base when contact is made. The technique includes a soft slap, pull slap and hard slap, explained the senior.

Milligan noted that when his senior slap-hits, it’s almost impossible to throw her out if the ball isn’t fielded cleanly.

“She likes to hit the ball hard. She bats .700 hitting the ball on the ground in the infield and about .300 when she’s trying to hit the ball out of the park,” Milligan said, smiling.

Thompson knows her speed is a major asset in her game.

How fast? She set the 100- and 200-yard dash records in track and field when she attended Center Grove Middle School Central.

But softball has easily been her first love. Encouraged by her dad, Kyle, who played baseball in his college days, she began playing when she was 6 and played in the Center Grove Lassie League.

Thompson considers her defense another main strength.

“I can catch a lot of balls that a lot of girls can’t,” she said. “I would like to improve on my arm in the outfield and improve on my strike zone discipline and stealing bases.”

Milligan agrees Thompson’s throwing arm is not exceptionally strong, but she compensates for that with a quick release and accuracy.

And he believes there’s more to Thompson’s abilities than being quick.

“She is a smart kid,” Milligan said. “She’s way up there in her class. What she says about her weaknesses says a lot about her. She understands the mistakes she makes. ... You don’t have to tell her about them.”

Milligan also values her ability to adjust defensively to each opposing batter in the course of a game.

As much as Thompson cherishes being on the team and all the camaraderie it has, she also has a keen appreciation for the Trojan program’s past successes.

“We have a very strong tradition,” she said. “That’s another thing I’ll miss.”

Though it’s as hard to miss having a sense of the team’s rich history as it is to miss hitting a fat pitch, Milligan appreciates her regard for it.

“She and my other senior (Olivia Leisz) know what things are expected,” Milligan said.

The Trojans have won several state championships and have had near misses for titles. The last time Center Grove captured an IHSAA Class 4A crown was in 2009, when Thompson was an eighth-grader.

A state championship, of course, is something Thompson and her teammates would like to experience this spring.

“We’re going to have a young team, but we should be pretty fast,” she said.

For Thompson, fast is the only way to go.

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