FARMINGTON -- A foul ball pops up behind home plate, off comes the catcher's mask opening up peripheral vision and a Farmington girl chases a dream.
That sums up the latest turn of events in the life of Skyler Riddle, who knows when to capitalize upon opportunity.
The 2023 Farmington graduate played catcher the last two seasons for the Lady Cardinal softball team. She caught the attention of college scouts, then responded to an unexpected offer in the middle of the Class 4A State softball tournament, which underwent several logistical changes including moving games from tournament host site Lonoke to Cabot after a one-day delay caused by rainstorms in central Arkansas.
"Skyler wanted to [play at the next level] and the opportunity kind of came out of the blue but I think it's great for her and it's a great testament to the rest of the kids," said Farmington coach Jason Shirey. "Hard work may not always be seen or you expect it to go a certain way, but the opportunities are there if you continue to work hard and do the right thing."
Riddle and her parents drove the 75 miles from Cabot to Newport to visit the Arkansas State University-Newport campus. The Aviators are pioneering a softball program and extended a scholarship offer to Riddle.
"It was a very late offer," Riddle said.
She was focused on the task at hand, preparing for a Friday, May 12, first-round game against Monticello. Another player might have put off the decision, at least until the state tournament concluded, but this was too good to pass up. Riddle and her parents took advantage of their proximity and made the one hour drive to visit the ASUN campus. Accustomed to making quick decisions on the playing field, Riddle was on top of her game.
"They said I had a big heart and that I was athletic," Riddle said. "On that Friday I went up to Newport and talked to them and decided."
She came away liking the campus, noting, "It was very small and very nice."
According to its website, while striving for a sense of individualism and identity five years ago, ASU-Newport rebranded its public image, choosing new school colors and introducing a mascot to enhance its marketable image as an institution.
Originally known as White River Vocational Technical School, the campus was built on the site of a World War II airbase. To incorporate the history of the region, the school chose "Aviators" as its nickname with a World War II fighter pilot named "Ace" as mascot.
The school announced hiring of its first athletic director, Brad Phillips, a native of Maynard, on March 8.
ASUN is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association and will compete in Region 2, at the Division II level beginning this fall.
Riddle signed a national letter of intent to play women's college softball for ASUN on Wednesday, May 24, at Farmington's Indoor Facility, home locker room for the Lady Cardinals.
Riddle relishes memories from playing softball with the Lady Cardinals, recalling coaches placing trust in her and providing chances to contribute before she was convinced she was ready. Both Jason Shirey and legendary Farmington coach Randy Osnes, who retired after the 2021 season, made strategic moves that boosted Riddle's confidence.
"When I was a sophomore, being a pinch-runner, I'm not that fast, and starting my junior year means a lot," Riddle said. "The coaches, they've done a lot, just being there through everything."
Riddle worked her way into the starting lineup as a junior, taking over the catching duties from two-year starter Grace Boatright, a home-run hitter. Jason Shirey switched Boatright to first base to increase her offensive productivity. Both he and Osnes, who utilized Riddle as a pinch-runner, evaluated players on their game savvy and work ethic, looking beyond mere physical skills.
"She's going to show up to work every day, she's going to get better. The last two years we put a lot on her in terms of handling the pitching staff," JasonShirey said. "She hit a lot more this year than she did her junior year."
Jason Shirey described Riddle assuming her role behind the plate in 2022 as, "just to relax and receive as a junior," and acknowledged her improvement as a senior.
"But this year, she really stepped up. She was our leading hitter against all the teams we played in state competition. It's kind of one of those things that nobody really knew, but just hard work and dedication to what she was doing," Jason Shirey said.
Riddle went 3 for 4 and drove in a runs in the Lady Cardinals' 10-0 win over Monticello.
Farmington lost 4-3 in the Class 4A quarterfinals to Bauxite on Saturday, May 13, but not because of a lack of effort.
The Lady Cardinals (21-4) jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning. With the bases loaded Katie Fleming was hit by a pitch, driving in a run, and Riddle drew a walk to push the second run across.
Riddle was on the receiving end of an outstanding defensive play that kept the Lady Miners from taking the lead in the fifth when left fielder Reese Shirey, the coach's daughter, caught a fly ball and threw to Riddle, who tagged a runner out at the plate after she tagged up.
"That was good. That kept it a 3-2 game," Jason Shirey said.
Riddle will probably play third base at ASUN. She plans to pursue a degree in Criminology and work in a crime lab, which should work out.
This girl already knows how to throw a wayward base-runner out and catch them in the act of stealing.