Spring Garden softball coach Ann Welsh told her then-sophomore standout the news after the season.
“I was very surprised,” Smart said. “I didn’t know that I hit that well.”
Now a junior, Smart heads into Friday’s North Regional play not only as Spring Garden’s leading hitter but also as the state single-season record holder for batting average with a minimum of 60 at bats.
At No. 2 in the batting order, she’s part of a one-two hitting punch with leadoff hitter Jordan Sides, who finished the 2011 season with the third-highest batting average in the fast-pitch era of Alabama High School Athletic Association competition.
The two are a big reason why the Panthers (21-12), ranked eighth in Class 1A, have high hopes of advancing to the state tournament for the first time since 2009.
Both players are off of their 2011 pace. Smart is hitting a mere .584 (62-for-106) and Sides .494 (49-for-99), but their reputations precede them now.
Smart has noticed a difference in how opponents pitch to her this season.
“Sometimes, they pitch mostly outside now to me,” Smart said. “Outside, I can’t hit with most of my power.”
Call it the price of success. Who wants to pitch to a .688 hitter?
That was Smart’s batting average in 2011. In the fast-pitch era, she got a hit nearly seven out of every 10 times she batted.
She went 66-for-96, finishing just under the state’s 100-at bat threshold. American Christian’s Chandler Dare holds the state record for 100 or more at bats, batting .658 (75-for-114) in 2011.
The AHSAA has two record thresholds to account for the “vast difference” in the number of games played by different schools, according to spokesman Ron Ingram.
“More at bats usually means lower average, and we try to recognize both,” he said.
Would four more at bats have dropped Smart’s 2011 batting average more than 30 points? It doesn’t seem likely.
“During a game that they (Smart and Sides) have four at bats, they’re going to get on base at least two times,” Welsh said. “You can count on them.”
Indeed, Sides hit .592 (58-for-98) in 2011 to ranked third in state history, behind previous record-holder Amanda Dean, who hit .613 for Pinson Valley in 1996.
Sides and Smart have a long history of playing travel ball when they’re not wearing Spring Garden’s maroon and gold. Both have played varsity ball since seventh grade.
“Jordan is more of a get-on-base person,” Welsh said. “Heather, most of the time, she’ll hit a few base-type hits, but she usually hits the ball really hard.”
Smart has shown home-run power, even at 5-foot-2. She homered in her first at bat this season.
“She’s real particular when she’s at bat,” Welsh said. “She studies the pitches and you’re very rarely going to strike her out. She’s going to get the bat on the ball somehow and make plays.
“If there’s runners on, she’s going to move them, if not hit them in.”
Smart does it year-round. In fact, she gave up basketball before this past season to concentrate on softball.
If she’s not playing for Spring Garden, she’s playing for the Birmingham Thunderbolts, a travel-ball team that went as far as Colorado to play in tournaments this past year. She’s played in the Triple Crown World Series and ASA Nationals.
When she’s not playing or practicing for Spring Garden or her travel ball team, she and sister Jessica Smart, an eighth-grader, are practicing at home, in their own batting cage.
Whether working against pitching or off a tee, Heather Smart is constantly working on technique.
“Practice is what helped me out with my batting average and made it go so high,” she said. “Just work on where your body is supposed to be, lined up with the ball, and how you’re supposed to hit an inside pitch or outside.
“I just focus on whether I’m hitting it solid.”
The numbers say she is, and the numbers say Spring Garden is about due another trip to Montgomery. They’ve made the regional the past eight years, reaching the state tournament in 2008 and 2009.
The Panthers will face stiff competition at Huntsville’s Metro Softball Complex this weekend. The North Regional 1A field includes seventh-ranked Decatur Heritage and No. 9 Athens Bible, as well a vote-getters Belgreen, Cedar Bluff and Woodville.
The Panthers open against Waterloo on Friday at 3:30 p.m.
“I really hope we make it back (to state),” said Heather Smart, who played in the state tournament as a seventh- and eighth-grader. “It would be really exciting, and I just want to win state.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.