Sneads High School hosted a signing ceremony Monday for softball southpaw pitcher and left-fielder Hannah Stephens as she prepares to join the Thomas University Night Hawks in Thomasville, Georgia.

Stephens accepted an athletic scholarship from the school and will report there in August.

Her Night Hawks coach, Jessica Sanders, joined her old coaches at SHS for the ceremony, saying she felt fortunate to have Stephens joining her squad at the private Christian college. Her team was the 2018 national champion of the Division 2 Sunbelt Conference.

Stephens, 19, was a four-year starter for the SHS Pirates and is the seventh Pirate in three years to be picked up by college teams on softball scholarships. Her head coach at SHS, Shawn Graham, said the Night Hawks will be gaining a hard worker.

“Any challenge you give her, that work ethic is going to take her where she needs to be,” Graham said Monday. “She’s somebody you could count on and she was an anchoring force for us.”

She’s an occasional pitcher for the Pirates, spending most of her time in the outfield, where she made some difficult catches with the kind of hustle that wowed watchers and got the attention of more than one college.

She said she chose the Night Hawks for three basic reasons. She felt at home there on her visit when Sanders invited over there to take a look around. “I liked the family feeling there,” Stephens said. “It had that warm atmosphere and made me feel like I was in a place where I would be cared about.”

And she was also attracted to it because going there will keep her close to home: She’ll be in easy driving distance from her beloved family. It’s only 90 minutes away from her home in Cypress.

At the ceremony Monday, she grew tearful as she thanked her parents for their support. Home-schooled for her first few years, she called her dad, Buddy, her “home coach” and credited him with helping her build the fundamentals of her game. She said he and her mother, Candace, helped her internalize important life skills that have helped her succeed so far and will carry her forward to be a valuable player for Thomas University. Buddy and Candace Stephens might be familiar names to area fans of gospel music-they were members of the Southern gospel group Vessels of Clay for years. Hannah made appearances with them, too, as a very young child. She sometimes sang a solo or two and, word is, she stole the show.

After the family came off the road, the youngster entered the public school system and went all in.

Stephens had a respectable .329 batting average during her last full season at SHS, and she’s fast around the bases. She can make it from home plate to first in 2.9 seconds. That’s an enviable time. When she paired that speed with her ability to turn out sacrificial bunts, she was a force to be reckoned with. “They called me ‘bunt queen,’” Stephens said. “The fastest people can stay under three seconds to get 60 feet from home to first, and I was a 2.9. That helped me some, I think.”

She also made only six errors on the mound in her four years of pitching some games in her secondary defensive role for the Pirates. The coach called on her when they needed to throw a batter off rhythm and send a different look over the plate with a lefty hurling the ball. She didn’t throw as fast as most, and that off-speed delivery, coupled with a left-handed release, could unsettle batters.

She brings a GPA of 3.75 to the table, as well. That’s another thing that got the attention of her Night Hawks coach. “We’re scholars first,” Sanders said, noting that Stephens’ academic performance was a factor in her being selected. That philosophy lines up with Stephens’ priorities.

There’s one more reason Stephens decided to join Sanders and the Night Hawks. Two of the players on that squad are people she knows and has played with or against through her years in summer travel ball or on her team at SHS.

Night Hawk Cheyene Blackman played for cross-county rival Marianna High, and the two also played as teammates in summer ball with Southern Elite. The old opponents became friends on that team.

Night Hawk Allyson Mirick was also a teammate in summer when the two played for the Panhandle Heat.

At Monday’s signing ceremony, several her of her SHS teammates and coaches, along with some summer ball club leaders, joined in to celebrate the young player’s moment. Her principal, Ron Mitchell, was also there, along with family and friends.

She’s looking into the notion of physical therapy as a career choice, saying it’s an attractive option because it would let her help people and potentially still stay close to sports.

Her classes start Aug. 17, but she goes to campus Aug. 1 and, under the school’s COVID-19 precaution policies, she and her teammates will have a two-week quarantine period before they can join to play.

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