By Kenton Brooks
Phoenix Sports Writer
TAHLEQUAH — Randee O’Donnell will never forget her defining moment.
She was about five years old when her father gave her a bat and started pitching baseballs to her in their backyard.
“I couldn’t hit a single one,” she said. “He pitched me 75 of them. I hit the very last one. Both of us were surprised and stopped. Then he told me to run. I started taking off and running everywhere on the lawn. Something clicked with me then.”
The Tahlequah High School junior soon translated that experience into softball. A life-long love for the sport began that night and continued to grow with the receiving recognition for her achievements on the diamond and getting a college scholarship offer to play.
It culminates with her being honored today as the Muskogee Phoenix Female Athlete of the Year. She’s the first Tahlequah girl to be recognized since the award started in 2003.
O’Donnell has also shined in basketball for the Lady Tigers. She helped the Lady Tigers to the state tournament in each of the three sports she played.
While she likes playing basketball, none of that compares to her feelings for softball.
“Basketball had been my thing for a long time but when I graduated from Briggs School to come here, I knew softball is what I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t love basketball enough to play it every day.
“With softball, I play it every day in the summer. During basketball season, I would go home where I have an indoor cage at my house and hit every day. Softball is my life. My life revolves around it. Even in school, I want to keep up my grades so I can be eligible to play.”
Since becoming eligible to play in high school, O’Donnell has been a rising star in softball, beginning with her selection as the Newcomer of the Year as a freshman on the 2010 All-Phoenix fastpitch team.
O’Donnell was named the Most Valuable Player on the fastpitch team after hitting .558, with two triples and 11 home runs. She also received every vote at shortstop and since she had already been given the MVP tag, there was no runner-up to be named shortstop so the position was vacated for the first time since the Phoenix began selecting an all-area fastpitch team.
She was the runner-up for MVP in slowpitch after hitting .588 with 15 doubles, six triples along with 12 home runs and 62 RBIs.
Matt Cloud, the Lady Tigers’ coach, said O’Donnell has the necessary assets to be successful on the diamond.
“It’s her dedication to spend time on it and her natural athletic ability also plays a big role,” he said. “But she also does the little things, such as taking ground balls or hitting the cage at night. She’s a competitor.”
Her abilities started to draw the attention of colleges as recently as last season. Oklahoma State showed interest and O’Donnell verbally committed to the Cowgirls.
“I talked to the coach (Rich Wieligman) and he asked me if she can play other positions,” Cloud said. “She just wants to play. She’s going to have the opportunity to fulfill that dream of playing in college.”
The second non-senior to be honored by the Phoenix after Sequoyah’s Angel Goodrich in 2005, O’Donnell is expected to sign her scholarship in November. It will be another defining moment for her.
“It was the summer after my freshman year that I started playing for the Oklahoma Diamond Girls,” she said. “Girls on the team knew what they wanted to do. One said she was going to play at the University of Tulsa and another one was going to Arkansas. I then thought it would be cool to play in college.”
Not to be forgotten, O’Donnell averaged 12 points per game on the basketball court.
“I’ve seen her do amazing things on the floor,” Johnny Dyson, recently named Tahlequah’s girls basketball head coach after being an assistant this last season, said. “She’s been a team leader since she was a freshman.“
O’Donnell, though, wasn’t immune to heartbreak this year. She suffered a high ankle sprain in the basketball playoffs that sidelined her for six weeks.
“I went to see a specialist and the whole night before I went to see him, I was worried if my leg was broken or could I play softball again like I could,” she said.
But the injury turned out not to be as serious as it had been feared. She recovered to have an impressive slowpitch season.
O’Donnell agrees there’s a difference between playing slowpitch and fastpitch, but she doesn’t let it affect her on the field.
“If you think of them as two different games, that will help you,” she said.
Opposing softball coaches have shown their respect for O’Donnell in both.
“She’s a dynamic game-changer athlete,” Muskogee’s Keith Coleman said. “You can tell she’s a great competitor. What makes her so good in softball? She runs, is good with the glove, has a great arm, hits for average and power. She makes her team better. She’s just a special, special player.”
O’Donnell has one more year of high school left. But her life is set for now.
“I like having that scholarship,” she said. “I can’t do things without having a plan. Knowing I have my school waiting for me comforts me.”
Winners of the award, chosen by the Phoenix Sports Staff:
2013 — Randee O’Donnell, Tahlequah
2012 — Taylor Jordan, Midway
2011 — Nana Wallace, Fort Gibson
2010 — Hannah Hamilton, Muskogee
2009 — Kera Smith, Gore
2008 — Angel Goodrich, Sequoyah
2007 — Brennan Miller, Fort Gibson
2006 — Kendra Dean, Fort Gibson
2005 — Angel Goodrich, Sequoyah
2004 — Jamillah Reed, Okay
2003 — Shae Moore, Oktaha