Deidre Ledbetter’s glove was worn out.
It was comparatively old given the shelf life of most mitts and the workload she put it through — Ledbetter started using it as a freshman on the Altamont softball team.
Her dad, John, bugged her to get a new one, but she didn’t want the hassle involved with breaking it in because this one was practically form-fitted for her hand, and her hand only.
It’s a beat-up piece of leather with a lot of mileage, including the 183 innings this season, a similar total last season and her pitch counts for the Mattoon Pride every summer. A lot of riseballs and screwballs came out of her glove in the last three or four years.
It was the glove she used during a stellar 2014 campaign where her team won it all, a season where she was named the Effingham Daily News All-Area Player of the Year.
Ledbetter didn’t know how much it meant to her until it broke at a pitching camp last week.
“I kind of got really nervous for a second because I didn’t want this to be my last chance with my glove,” she said. “I don’t even know if it’s a sentimental thing now or that I’ve just been using it all the time.”
She pitched Altamont to this season’s Class 1A State championship with that glove, giving it more emotional value than she realized.
She also expected to pitch with it for the remainder of her softball career, which will last at least two more years at Lake Land College.
It wasn’t broken beyond repair, to Ledbetter’s surprise. Her dad restrung it, enabling her to use it in a travel softball tournament with the Pride last weekend.
Ledbetter will go as far as she can with her glove, but she knows it’s better to start planning its retirement earlier rather than later.
“Maybe a big glass case for it,” she said. “We definitely won't be throwing it away.”
But if it was going to break, she’s glad it did after she finished playing for her school’s first state championship trophy in any sport. It stuck together long enough for her to catch the final out of Altamont’s state championship game.
All of those moments, still fresh and scrambled from only a few weeks ago, came rushing back to her like long-lost memories.
* * * *
Ledbetter hit the point of emotional overload the night before the state championship game.
She sat with Lauren White and Josie Phillips at Avanti’s Italian Restaurant in Peoria for dinner. They all ordered the seafood pasta, savoring their semifinal win earlier that day over Sciota West Prairie and thinking about the championship game the next morning.
Unlike Ledbetter, Phillips and White aren’t playing college softball.
“I’m never going to catch you again,” Ledbetter recalls White saying. White was Ledbetter’s catcher for the better part of the 14 years coming up through the Altamont program together.
The excitement of playing in the state title game masked the reality for the team — a large group of seniors was about to play their last game together.
Ledbetter and White, then Phillips, started crying at the table.
“There was so much emotion going through those two days that, at the drop of a hat, any of us could be crying or smiling,” Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter wasn’t done riding the emotional roller coaster. She left her hotel room sobbing later that night and walked to the lobby to try to calm down.
The star player, who garnered a second straight National Trail Conference most valuable player award this season and a Class 1A first team All-State selection by the Illinois Coaches Association, felt all the pressure — some self-inflicted — of the moment.
It was her last high school game, the last with her best friends. She needed to pitch a great game because Campbell Hill Trico’s pitcher was good, too. The Eastside Centre field was nice, thus intimidating. A second place trophy is pretty, but it’s the state championship so anything except first place would’ve been a step short.
It was all on the line and she was the center of attention.
She couldn’t run away from the stage; after all, it’s what she always wanted, growing up admiring her sister, Danielle, 11 years her elder and a high school softball pitcher.
* * * *
Three-year-old Deidre Ledbetter was not unlike most little sisters.
She was jealous of her older sister, Danielle, who spent a lot of time with their dad, practicing the mechanics of her pitching motion.
Ledbetter saw what her older sister was doing to grab John’s attention and copied it. All of a sudden, she was going to be a pitcher, too, and she needed to practice.
At such a young age, Ledbetter’s dad started showing her how to frame pitches in the basement of their home. She had a short attention span, but that was all right.
“I would throw like eight pitches and be like, ‘OK, I’m done now,’” Ledbetter said. “But that was okay because I got that extra attention from him.”
She supported Danielle by attending her high school games and always thought it was so cool that her older sister was the pitcher, the player in the middle that everyone watched and then talked about afterward.
Ledbetter’s attention span improved as she got older and the practices with her dad got more serious and focused. He told her, “You can pitch, but if you’re going to pitch, you’re going to do it right,” which was an important ultimatum to set the path for her career.
She succeeded in the pitching circle and was often at the center of the Altamont softball conversation this year, compiling a 26-3 record, 1.11 ERA and 284 strikeouts.
* * * *
Peggy Bueker, an Altamont physical education teacher and Ledbetter’s former coach on the Indians’ freshman and sophomore softball team, found the star pitcher in the hotel lobby.
Ledbetter and her teammates frequented Bueker’s office, near the girls’ locker room at the high school, often this year seeking, among other things, a calming presence.
Bueker always knew the right thing to say, even the Friday night before the state championship game.
“Today is Christmas Eve and tomorrow is Christmas morning, and you get to wake up and play in the state championship,” Ledbetter remembers Bueker saying.
The pressure of the big stage no longer effected Ledbetter, who shifted her energy toward having fun in her last high school game.
Ledbetter struck out 25 hitters that weekend, the most of any player who pitched their team’s two State games from all four of the IHSA classifications.
Trico’s Emily Bauersachs was one player who got the best of Altamont’s ace for one at-bat, on a curveball that didn’t do what it was supposed to do.
“It was kind of an unexpected person to hit the home run,” Altamont head coach John Niebrugge said.
White, who calls the pitches for Ledbetter without the coaches’ assistance, said she noticed Ledbetter was scared to throw her riseball, an excellent out pitch in her arsenal.
The catcher went to the mound to calm her pitcher down — a conversation Ledbetter doesn’t remember — as Bauersachs rounded the bases.
“I went out there and told her that you look scared when I (call a riseball) and you shouldn’t be,” said White, who gave Altamont new life with a two-run homer in the sixth. “If she wouldn’t have kept pitching well I would’ve called as many timeouts as I could’ve.”
Suddenly, all Ledbetter needed was to get three outs. Of course, Bauersachs was due up third.
Bauersachs swung at the first pitch of her at-bat, with two outs, and popped up one loaded, “major league” fly ball right above Ledbetter’s head.
“I was absolutely terrified that I was going to drop it,” Ledbetter said.
Niebrugge added, “The ball couldn't get down quick enough.”
The ball was so high in the air that Madison Ohnesorge, from centerfield, was already on the infield by the time the ball dropped into Ledbetter’s glove.
White said Ledbetter always wanted to be in the middle of a dog pile.
The next thing Ledbetter remembers, after catching the final out, was lying on the infield dirt with White and a pile of teammates on top of her.
She got her wish.
* * * *
A championship ring, first-place medal, state finals sweatshirt, banner and trophy in the high school, sign outside of town, and her resilient glove will be constant reminders of what Ledbetter and her teammates accomplished — bringing home Altamont's first-ever state title.
She’s anxiously awaiting DVDs of the state semifinal and final to come in the mail, while her dad routinely re-watches them on the IHSA website at home.
Community members ask her about the game often — mostly wondering if she has stopped her victory parade yet.
“I go to the grocery store and people will ask me if I’ve come down from cloud nine yet,” Ledbetter said. “I’ll stop and talk to everyone a bit and everybody in the town was listening (to the championship game).
“When we won there was probably a silence and then an eruption. I would’ve loved to be in 10 places at once at that time to see how people reacted.”
There will be a different player at the center of attention next year for Altamont, but Ledbetter won’t soon be forgotten.
Niebrugge and White will miss Ledbetter for a number of reasons — some on the field, some off it.
“She's got an irreplaceable laugh you can hear from half a mile away,” Niebrugge said.
White will enroll at Murray State in the fall, taking with her a master's degree in Ledbetter’s pitching tendencies. The pair have called their own pitches in each of the last two seasons.
In some respects, Ledbetter was as dominant of a hitter as she was a pitcher. She hit .476 this season and led the Indians in hits, doubles, triples and RBIs.
She had the fewest strikeouts, in 119 plate appearances, than any teammate who had at least 30 at-bats this season — though probably because she never faced herself on the mound.
“I always wanted to be a hitter like Deidre,” White said. “Her swing is like perfect. She’s a ball of energy. She just explodes.”
Ledbetter will be at the Eastside Centre in East Peoria this weekend, though playing in a different uniform with the Mattoon Pride. It’s her first time back.
“I think it’s going to bring back a lot of memories and emotions,” Ledbetter said. “It’s still unreal. It’s still crazy.”
Nobody would blame her if she shed a tear or two.
Alex McNamee can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or email@example.com.