Alex Boze had participated in enough Belleville East summer softball camps that coaches knew exactly who she was by the time she arrived on campus for her freshman year.
But middle school talent can sometimes be deceiving. Could she be coached up? Or was she already as good as she was ever going to get?
“We saw her coming, but you honestly never quite know what you’re going to get when a player gets here,” said East head coach Natalie Peters.
Three years later, coaches throughout Southern Illinois know exactly what Peters and the Lancers have in Boze. They voted the hard-hitting catcher the BND Large-School Player of the Year.
Never miss a local story.
Boze batted .480 with a .515 on-base percentage and .927 slugging average. Her 14 home runs were the most in the metro-east, and her 54 RBIs ranked second. Defensively, she committed just two errors and two passed balls while being credited for 15 assists.
In short, Boze has been everything Peters thought she could be — and then some.
“She has talent, but coachability is what makes her better every year,” Peters said. “I tell them, if you want to be a great player, it doesn’t really matter what you did last year. You have to be better each year and the year after. Boze takes that to heart. To see her growth and maturity the last two seasons was noticeable, but you could really see it in her this season.”
Boze plays summer softball with the St. Louis Prospects, where she catches Dupo pitcher Megan Brown, the BND Small-School Player of the Year.
A third-year starter, Boze started her junior year with nine career home runs and a .371 career batting average. That was good enough to earn her a scholarship to play at Missouri State University, where she’ll begin in the fall of 2018.
Even by those standards, though, it was a breakout spring for the daughter of Art and Nikki Boze.
A couple things made the difference, she said, including a softball-specific strength training program that helped her home run total jump from one as a sophomore to her school-record total this year.
“It’s helped my endurance and ability to go through the game without dying,” Boze said laughing. “It’s more strength training, not like running because I don’t run. I hit 14 home runs this year after hitting one last year. Yeah, I think that came from the workouts, for sure.”
The other factor in her junior-season surge, she says, was the maturity of the team around her.
The Lancers won 30 games and their first sectional championship in 10 years. It was only a hard-luck loss to Lincoln Way-East that blocked them from an IHSA Class 4A state tournament berth.
Boze was clutch in the postseason, going 8 for 16 in five games, including her memorable two-home run, five-RBI performance against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in the regional championship.
Softball is my escape. You don’t worry about your grades or your biology test or your boy problems. You just come out here and play and hit a ball. It’s a privilege, and I know that.
Alex Boze, BND Large School Softball Player of the Year
But there were other threats in the Lancers lineup, including senior center fielder Amanda Dermody (.462, 4 HR, 26 RBI), third baseman Jessica Belzer (.455, 45 R, 22 RBI), sophomore outfielder Jackie Belzer (.408, 34 R, 18 RBI) and second baseman Kendall Patton (.340, 30 R), who each earned BND All-Area honors.
Kristina Bettis, who went 25-6 with a 1.40 ERA to earn first-team All-Area recognition, will be Boze’s batterymate at East again next spring.
“My teammates were amazing,” she said. “We were able to get hits up and down the lineup, so our offense runs on more than just me. I’ve never been more proud of a pitcher than I was of Kristina because of how far she’s come since last year.
“The team really came together late in the season, and I really started to believe we could go all the way.”
Both Boze and Peters are anticipating another deep postseason run next season. Patton, Jackie Belzer and Bettis are all back, as is shortstop Alyssa Krausz, who was a surprise .357 hitter with six home runs and 26 RBIs.
Boze will return as East’s single-season and career record-holder in home runs and RBIs. She’ll likely break the record for career hits, too.
How much better can Boze get? That’s still a question Peters asks herself.
To see her growth and maturity the last two seasons was noticeable, but you could really see it in her this season.
Natalie Peters, Belleville East coach
“She’s not getting any shortcuts from us,” Peters said. “Will she put up these kinds of numbers again? I don’t know. It would be great, but we really just want her to come, play her game, not think too much and keep playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. That’s when good things happen.”
That’s the kind of pressure Boze says she can deal with.
“I just love being out here,” she said. “Softball is my escape. You don’t worry about your grades or your biology test or your boy problems. You just come out here and play and hit a ball.
“It’s a privilege, and I know that.”