When Penn State softball coach Amanda Lehotak discusses the characteristics she looks for in her players, it’s likely Shelby Miller is the first example that comes to mind.
In her fourth season with the program, Lehotak has proven her ability to recruit effectively on a national level, signing prospects from places like Arizona, California, and Missouri. Miller, who hails from Sugar Land, Texas, was part of her first recruiting class at Penn State. It didn’t take long for the now-senior third baseman to know State College was the right fit for her.
“When I came here, when I literally stepped my foot on campus, I said, ‘I’m sold.’ It’s a changing experience,” Miller added. “I didn’t care that it was gonna be so cold, because when you come here it’s just this feeling of, ‘I wanna be a part of something this great.’”
Miller, a kinesiology major, admitted she misses Tex-Mex food when she’s away at school, saying she could “eat chips and salsa for a meal” if she wanted to. It’s safe to say Central Pennsylvania isn’t exactly a hotbed for her favorite cuisine.
She’s currently tied with Shannon Salsburg and Nan Sichler for the second-most RBIs in program history with 118, just 19 behind former teammate Macy Jones’ record. Her travel coach, retired NFL player Bert Emanuel, saw this coming when Miller was only 9 or 10-years-old.
“As crazy as it sounds, the first time I saw Shelby I knew she was an amazing talent,” Emanuel said. His daughters, Sydni and Cortni, play for the Georgia Bulldogs and were longtime teammates of Miller with Texas KAOS. But there was one play in particular, before Miller — then a shortstop — had joined their travel club, that blew him away.
“The ball was hit deep in the hole, Shelby backhanded [it]and threw a rocket to first base. I was stunned,” Emanuel said. “She played defense like a football player. She was tough and focused, and made plays after plays that still today make me smile.”
He even gave her the nickname “Rocket” for the unbelievable throws she would deliver off-balance or from her knees at a young age.
Miller highlighted her father, William, and Emanuel as the biggest mentors of her softball career. But Emanuel, and later Lehotak, realized there was something holding Miller back from reaching her highest potential. At times, she was too invested in the game and would needlessly beat herself up if she made even one error or was going through a cold streak at the plate.
“I feel very lucky to have been a part of her growth and I’m very proud of everything she’s accomplished,” Emanuel said. “She’s a special talent. Always has been and always will be.”
Lehotak, who routinely praises Miller for her deep understanding of the game, has seen her take tremendous strides from an emotional standpoint as an upperclassman. But Miller’s “linebacker mentality,” as Emanuel put it, has never gone away. “The greatest thing about Shelby is she’s one of the best competitors you will ever meet,” Lehotak said.
Miller was born in Houston and grew up watching Astros legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio as well as USA softball great Jennie Finch. She even adopted his No. 7 as her favorite number, and when it wasn’t available her freshman year, she asked the coaches if she could wear No. 77 instead. It stuck.
“I have a lot of confidence in my ability to play defense; that never wavers,” Miller said. It’s been a bit of a struggle for Miller to find consistency in the batter’s box this season, but there’s no denying her ability to work the ball in different directions, including over the fence, when she’s on. “Every time I go up to bat, I have to force myself to turn off my brain,” said Miller, who has 16 career home runs for the Nittany Lions.
There’s an easy style to Miller when she’s on the field. From her walk-up song, DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat,” to her batting-glove-less hands at the plate, Miller is immediately recognizable.
Sophomore utility player Tori Dubois, who many consider to be Miller’s heir apparent at third base next season, credits the veteran for helping to change the program’s culture. In years past, the team wasn’t as close and younger players perhaps didn’t feel as comfortable going to the seniors for advice. She and classmate Marly Laubach have taken it upon themselves to facilitate that transition.
“The team definitely feeds off her energy. Sometimes she gets up and she hits the hardest ball anyone’s ever seen. What Shelby does, we go with her,” Dubois said.
Miller has noticed a difference in the 2017 roster’s chemistry, too. And she’s proud that this senior class, Lehotak’s first, was the one that pushed Penn State in the right direction. “Now, I trust every single one of these girls, even the freshmen who I’ve only known for a year, to have my back,” Miller said.
There’s always a smile on Miller’s face when she’s warming up and interacting with teammates at Beard Field, but once the lights come on, you can see the switch. She plans to take a gap year before applying to grad school to become a physical therapist.
Penn State (22-29, 8-12 Big Ten) will wrap up the regular season with a three-game home stand and senior week festivities against Minnesota this Friday through Sunday.