Torrey Pines softball standout Kaili Aqui is being asked to take on a leadership role this year, and the soft-spoken junior second baseman is the first to admit it’s not something that comes easy to her.
With heavy graduation losses, the Falcons need someone to help take charge, and despite some trepidations, she’s all in.
“I’m both excited and nervous to be more of a leader this year,” Aqui said. “I’m looking forward to it, but it is a little bit nerve-wracking because it’s a big role to take on. The seniors last year set a really good example and I just don’t want to mess up.”
Aqui has met every challenge she’s faced so far.
She served notice her freshman year, setting school records for hits with 50 and batting average .562.
The left-handed slap hitter is part of a 1-2-3 punch at the top of the order that last season was among the county’s most productive. Aqui last season batted second, behind freshman sensation and fellow slapper Kyra Chan and Katie Walling, who hit third.
“My goal as a slapper is I just want to get on base, any way you can, because the rest of your team will get you to score,” Aqui said.
Aqui, a defensive standout at second base, also plays shortstop and the outfield for her Breakers Labs 16U Blue travel team. She plans to play middle infield in college.
Her game-changing speed sets her apart.
Aqui led the team with 21 stolen bases her freshman year and swiped 15 as a sophomore.
She spent part of her summer working with a private coach on speed and agility drills.
Her work ethic is among the factors Torrey Pines coach Jonathan Moore cited for tapping Aqui for a leadership role.
“She’s really a great kid,” Moore said. “Great work ethic, great teammate. One of the most coachable kids I’ve ever had, and I’ve been doing this for 24 years.
“Her work ethic rubs off, especially on the younger kids.”
Aqui said she’ll try to emulate the seniors from last year’s team who she believes were effective leaders.
The Falcons graduated three four-year starters and two three-year starters.
Makena Macias was the team’s most vocal leader. “She was always confident, always knew what to do and really hyped everyone up for our games,” Aqui said.
Pitcher Haley White led by example, and Valentina Perrone created a welcoming environment for newcomers.
“She’s going to have to be a leader,” Moore said of Aqui. “I want her to be a captain but she’s so shy. I hope she becomes a leader verbally as well as the way she does her work. It’s vitally important because we graduated five senior starters who started three years in a row.”
Aqui also attends clinics run by former University of Washington standout Morgan Stuart, who she credits with helping her with the mental side of her game.
Learning to experience failure, Aqui acknowledged, is one of the most challenging aspects of softball.
“I get really frustrated at myself,” she said. ‘I tell myself, ‘OK, you might be having a bad day.’ Then I try to figure out what I’m doing wrong and then put it behind me and move on.”
There are misconceptions about being a slapper.
Just putting the ball in play and beating out hits looks ridiculously easy.
“It’s not,” she said. “People think all you have to do is tap the ball and run to first base, but it’s actually not that easy because there are a lot of things that a slap hitter needs to think about and look for. You see where the defense is playing, and you have to know what you want to do before you step into the box.
“That’s the same with all hitters but with slap hitters it’s different because defenses usually play slightly different on you and you have to know the pitcher and know their speed. It’s hard to time pitchers because you’re moving towards the ball, your feet are moving as you’re hitting so it’s coming at you faster.”
More than anything, Aqui prides herself for being a good teammate.
If there’s one thing she hopes to impart to teammates, it’s her philosophy that “everything about softball should be done as a team.”
“It’s a team effort and you (rise and fall) together.”
Aqui credits her teammates’ encouragement for helping her set the school’s hits and batting average her freshman year.
Now she wants to pay it forward.
“I was very proud of myself at the end of (my freshman) season but it’s a team thing,” she said. “My teammates were really encouraging and really supportive. My teammates are a really big thing and I think that’s why I was able to break that record, because I was having so much fun with them.”