BELLEVILLE — Belleville East's Kayla Fields could have run track, but softball provided more of the team atmosphere she craved.
"I wanted to do more than run," Fields said. "I wanted to be with more girls and have the interaction and the experience. I'm happy that I chose softball."
The speedy Fields has been chosen as the Belleville News-Democrat's Class 3A-4A Softball Player of the Year in voting by metro-east coaches. She edged out Columbia sophomore catcher Taryn Pena for the honor.
"She is definitely the fastest player we've ever had at Belleville East, and we've had some fast ones, so that says a lot about her," East coach Natalie Peters said of Fields, who shattered the school records for single-season and career stolen bases.
Fields stole 178 bases over her career, which ranks seventh in state history, according to the Illinois High School Association's online record book. She was caught stealing only 12 times in her career.
Fields stole 70 bases as a senior this season, a total that ranks sixth in state history. She was thrown out attempting to steal five times, but Peters said only one of those times was a case of a straight steal where she wasn't caught on a pickoff or a delayed steal or when she slipped coming off the base.
"She legitimately got thrown out one time, and that was by Molly Fields from Mater Dei," Peters said. "All the other times, she either slipped when she led off or things like that."
Fields' presence on the basepaths could be unnerving to opposing catchers.
"I usually talk to the catchers, and they always say, 'Just let me throw you out one time,"' Fields said.
The former school record for career stolen bases was 121 by Ali Trickey (2008-11) and the prior school record for single-season stolen bases was 47 by Adrienne May in 2000.
Fields also set school records for most runs in a career (150), most runs in a single season (57), most hits in a career (190) and most at-bats in a single season (135).
Last season, she batted .481 as the Lancers' leadoff hitter. She scored 57 runs, banged out 11 extra-base hits (seven doubles, three triples and a home run) and collected 21 RBIs.
"She was our sparkplug," Peters said. "I think this year she took her game to a whole different level. She had over 20 RBIs and double-digit extra-base hits.
"Sometimes she'd bunt to get on, and sometimes she'd hit a double in the gap. Once she got on, everybody was so paranoid about her stealing that she scored most of the time."
When Fields arrived at East, she was still batting right-handed. The coaching staff quickly turned her around to the left side to take advantage of her speed.
"She was about as raw as you could get," Peters said. "I had heard that we had this crazy fast kid coming to East. She mainly bunted, but she ended up playing half of that year on the varsity level.
"It was pretty much a bunt or a strikeout, and some of those times that she struck out, they'd dropped it and she got on first base."
Fields said she had a lot of help in her transition to left-handed slapper.
"I had trouble during my freshman year, but I always had upperclassmen helping me," Fields said. "Kayla Wade (currently playing for Tennessee-Martin) helped me my freshman year tremendously."
By her senior season, Fields was able to bunt, slap bunt and swing away with some power.
"She is definitely a triple threat at the plate," Peters said. "She could swing away. What was hard for us as coaches was she got on so well by slapping and bunting, and her slaps could be power slaps. We didn't have her swing as much as she does in summer.
"I think as she continues on in college with her career, I think they are going to develop that even more."
Though she didn't show it much, Fields felt like she had some pop in her bat.
"I'm pretty sure I could hit it to the fence," Fields said. "I don't know about a home run, but a triple definitely."
Fields' fielding was even less developed than her hitting as a freshman.
"I could never catch a ball coming straight towards me," Fields said. "But if it was over my head, I always could run to it and get it."
Fields eventually developed into a stellar fielding left fielder who moved to center field for her senior season.
"She was athletic enough that we probably could have put her anywhere and she would have become great," Peters said. "Kayla is one of the most coachable kids that we ever had. She trusted what we told her from Day 1, and (assistant coach) Amy Schulte, who was a Division I outfielder, turned Kayla into the outfielder that she was. She really was amazing by the end of her career."
The Lancers posted a 30-9 record this past season. They also celebrated their first regional championship since 2007.
"That's what we strived to get, and we got it," Fields said. "Our motto was: 'One team, one dream, bring it back.' We brought it back."
Fields, 18, the daughter of Deidre and Clifford Fields, from Fairview Heights, is headed to Gulf Coast State, a junior college in Panama City, Fla.
Peters, who played at Florida State, had the connections that helped Fields land a scholarship to one of the top JUCO programs in the country. Gulf State coach Susan Painter also played at Florida State.
Fields was offered a scholarship after a tryout with the team.
"I explained to the coach on the phone how fast she was, but sometimes I think it's hard for those college coaches because people blow smoke at them a lot," Peters said.
Peters said she's confident that Fields will be a junior college standout and eventually earn a scholarship to a Division I school.
Peters said Fields has always reminded her of Serita Brooks, her former Florida State roommate and an NCAA All-American center fielder.
"I happened to play at Florida State with the fastest player in the country my senior year," Peters said. "Kayla has just reminded me of her since Day 1. Her personality, her athleticism. Serita also started at a junior college and was still batting right-handed before she came to Florida State.
"In just two years at Florida State, she became a Division I All-American. I think the potential for Kayla really is just endless."
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.