Nikki Harris’ high school softball career has always been about more than just mere numbers.
That said, the Flowery Branch pitcher has put up plenty of impressive numbers throughout that career.
And last week, Harris put of another impressive number, and reached a milestone, by recording the 600th strikeout of her career during Flowery Branch’s final home game of the 2022 campaign.
With 14 more in a regular season-ending win at Clarke Central, the senior left-hander now has 614 as the Falcons (17-13) head into a Class 5A State Super Regional Tournament as a No. 3 seed to meet second-seeded Calhoun in a first-round game Thursday at Cambridge.
But while, as was pointed out, Harris’ value to the Flowery Branch program goes beyond the numbers, she admits that the milestone is a bit much to wrap around her head.
“Honestly, … I never really thought much about the numbers, the crazy stats that most people bring up to me, because I just go out there and try to do my job, stay with my teammates, have fun, play the game like you’re supposed to play the game,” Harris said. “So it’s never really occurred to me that I’ve reached this goal. It doesn’t feel real.”
The impact Harris has had on the Falcons’ success during her career is definitely real.
While Flowery Branch had its share of accomplishments before she arrived, her ability and competitiveness in the circle has helped the program take those accomplishments to an even higher level.
“She stepped in (to the program) at a good time,” Flowery Branch coach Blake Cagle said. “She kind of stepped in and took over the circle and has been there ever since. … We knew how good she was going to be, or at least had the potential to be. She’s kind of grown into that person that is … a competitor.
“She wants the ball in big games (like) when we’re going to Loganville or we’re going down to Columbus (for the Class 4A state tournament) last year. She wants the ball in her hand. She enjoys the pressure and does well under the pressure. … It really boils down to her just being a competitor.”
Indeed, Harris has performed well under pressure throughout her career, including this fall, as she has posted an 8-6 record with a 1.04 ERA and 188 strikeouts over 107 1/3 innings.
But she is the first to admit that the confidence to face such pressure wasn’t always there until recent years after she came to the Flowery Branch program.
The symbol of how she developed into a far more confident pitcher, and person in general, can be seen just about the wrist on her glove hand in the form of a tattoo she got earlier this year on her 18th birthday.
“It’s the Japanese symbol for courage,” Harris explained. “I had been dealing with bullying (at a younger age), … but it’s all good now. Softball has helped grow me into who I am and helped me bring out my entire outgoing personality.”
As much as Harris’ success in the circle has helped bring her out of her shell and develop a more outgoing and confident persona, she also acknowledges that it couldn’t have happened without her friends and teammates.
In particular, her fellow senior pitcher, senior right-hander Alyssa Wagner, has had a big impact on her both off and on the field the past few seasons.
“(Wagner) has pitched in some high-leverage games and has done well,” Cagle said. “She’s kind of proven to Nikki that’s not the only person we have in the circle, and I think that’s taken a lot of pressure off of Nikki. It’s allowed her to kind of relax and say, ‘All right, I don’t have to be perfect.’”
Wagner, who has gone 8-4 with a 2.41 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 75 1/3 innings this season, has had also had impact on Harris in that it has helped her develop a closer relationship with all her teammates.
“Having Alyssa on my team really is such a help,” Harris said. “Having a pitching staff makes a huge difference because a lot of girls are like, ‘I want to be on the field. I want to play. I want to do it all.’ But I really appreciate my pitching staff and being able to work with my (teammates) because it gets me rest, and it gives them the opportunity for them to go out and do what they want to do, as well.”
Wagner’s emergence in the circle has also allowed Harris another outlet to help release some of the pressure on her by allowing her to take a part-time role as a first baseman.
While her offensive numbers are more modest compared to on the mound, she has been able to contribute to the Falcons in a different way, one in which she doesn’t usually get to do in travel ball.
Hitting has also had a more tangible benefit for her on the mound by getting a chance to see how opposing pitchers approach an at-bat, while also helping her get inside the minds of opposing hitters.
“I feel like it has made me a better pitcher because it gets my mind off of just pitching and be able to move in a different place on the field,” Harris said. “So I’m not just thinking specifically about throwing to these batters, what do I want to do in this situation. (Instead) I’m thinking about how am I going to make contact with the ball, and it gives me a thought process away from what I’m normally used to.
“While pitching, I’ve always been able to analyze what a batter is thinking, but getting into the box (and) having a hitter’s mindset helps a ton. I’m able to understand where the pitchers are planning on going and what spin they’re using, so I can read what pitch they’re about to throw … because I throw those pitches all the time.”
Harris’ focus will go back almost exclusively to pitching once she completes her senior year and heads off to play Division-I college softball at North Carolina next year.
But she still has at least one more chapter to write about her high school career in the Super Regionals as she and the Falcons try to earn a return trip to Columbus for the Class 5A state tournament.
And she has the same confidence in her teammates as she does in herself that they will all be ready to meet the challenges left in front of them.
“I’m super excited about (Super) Regionals,” Harris said. “I think that we have a great shot, especially if our team continues to work together. I’m hoping that we can stay together, be able to pull through (with) hits to (drive) in runs.
“I want our team chemistry to stay strong. We definitely have a strong connection between us girls, and if we can keep that connection, we’ll be able to move through to Columbus again.”
Super Regional playoff schedule
at Cambridge High
Flowery Branch vs. Calhoun
Cherokee Bluff at Central-Carroll