Abby Ota is an artist. And her canvas is a several-inch spot on the top of her softball bat.
If doing the same thing over and over again is defined as insanity, that’s just fine with the Barlow sophomore. Heading into the Class L state tournament, Ota leads all hitters with a definitely-insane .739 batting average — with a .786 on base percentage — and 51 hits.
Ota — who is two hits away from 100 already — is already on the radar of some colleges as she enters the summer. She’ll play for the Georgia Impact, one of the top club teams in the nation, along with the junior Brakettes in Stratford. She’s risen to the top of the sport behind a skill that few others possess to her degree.
Ota’s blazing speed is primarily maximized by bunting, a skill she developed early on in the batting cage in her basement with her dad. A left-handed batter who starts closer to first base, Ota takes less than three seconds to get from departure to arrival.
“I feel like I was always that because when I was younger I was always fast,” Ota said. “Being a lefty helps in general because you start off closer to first base. … I bunted and hit away, but I didn’t know how to slap, but once I learned that I think it helped me with my bunting.”
“I think she gets a raw deal from peers sometimes because people say all she does is bunt,” Barlow coach Craig Sears said. “But I tell everybody: If I was able to do that as a ballplayer, get on 75 percent of the time because I’m fast, I’d do it every time. It’s invaluable.”
That gives defenses little time to react, though some opponents have thrown some peculiar looks. One side brought an outfielder into the infield to put up a great wall, while another took its third basemen and brought her close enough to invade Ota’s personal space.
“Literally she was two feet away from me, I’m not even kidding,” Ota said. “I hit a triple against that. I was like, ‘Nope.’ ”
That may have worked at one time, but Ota has evolved her skill set to always end up on first base. Developing the slap hit — a running start that typically ends in chopping the ball in the infield is another tool.
“Speed kills,” Sears said. “You need fast players in a fast game; a majority of the successful (Division I) programs in the country have kids who are fast. She’s still evolving as a sophomore; she’s going to get those other parts in her game.”
And once she gets to first base, game over. Ota has 31 steals in 31 attempts so far this year in just 21 games. Ota’s numbers mirror last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year Becca Johnson of Seymour, and place her in a selective group nationally. Her .739 mark ranked fourth in the country according to MaxPreps.
“Running the bases is really fun for me, I enjoy it,” Ota said. “I’m very proud of myself; I think it shows how much I’ve worked on it. Not many people can get as many hits from bunts as I can so I think that’s special.
BIG SHOES, KID
The potential future Division I player had those shoes to fill already upon arriving on the scene as a freshman. Now UConn standout Briana Marcelino — who just finished her sophomore year there and hit close to .400 — was a four-year player for the Falcons and helped the school win its first state title in 2017. Ota hit .580 as a freshman from the leadoff spot.
Ota was pensive to those comparisons, desiring to create a name of her own. A natural outfielder on the summer circuit, Ota — who didn’t know many of her future Falcons teammates well — was placed at shortstop due to the graduation of Marcelino.
“Everyone like was, ‘You’re the new Briana,’ ” Ota said. “But I was like ‘I’m Abby;’ so people kept saying that and it bothered me a little bit but once I got into it I was fine. She was really good so if you’re saying I’m the new Briana that’s a compliment at the same time.”
Ota hopes to finalize her college plans once her junior year arrives, and she’ll get a chance to showcase her skills playing in tournaments across the country with the Impact. She’s played travel since elementary school, first in New York and then in New Jersey.
“She has a personality on her and I love personality,” Sears said. “She’s a good kid; we can have a back-and-forth conversation, or goof off and laugh. She’s a joy to be around; I like showing up every day because of kids like her. It’s what makes this worth doing.”
Duplicating this season’s numbers will be difficult regardless of any advancement in skill, though Ota is up to the challenge. Adding other tools in the batter’s box is at the top of the list before she likely lands with a big school.
“I was just talking about this, thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to get a batting average of .800 next year,” Ota joked. “If I can do that as a sophomore; if I keep doing what I’m doing even more I should (do well). Even if I stay the same that’s pretty good.”