HEFLIN — Any time someone asked Cleburne County head coach Ron Ervin anything related to his softball team this past season, two names always come up.

One was senior Kaity Zeiders, who signed with Snead State earlier this year. Ervin said the other was a freshman named Kiara Akles.

Akles has played on the varsity since since she was seventh-grader, joining the team when the Tigers entered the postseason in 2012.

Since then, she’s gone from a newcomer to a star.

This past season, Akles earned 18 wins on the year and posted a 1.60 ERA over 193 innings. She struck out 230 batters, walked only 13 and had a 0.523 WHIP. At the plate, Akles batted .451 with a .522 on-base percentage, 23 runs, 11 RBIs and three triples.

She spearheaded Cleburne County’s drive to its first state softball tournament appearance in school history. As a result, Akles is The Anniston Star’s All-Area softball player of the year, which covers the local area outside of Calhoun County.

“She’s improved a tremendous amount,” Ervin said. “She’s gotten better at having command of her pitches. Sometimes when you’re a great athlete you can just kind of blow it by people, but she has two or three pitches that she can really command. She puts them where she wants them, and that’s something you want from a great pitcher.”

Even with the impressive season Akles had, what Ervin appreciated most was how she accepted his challenge to be a leader, despite being only a freshman. Akles played one of the largest roles in helping getting Cleburne County to the Class 4A state tournament.

“I called her in and talked to her, challenged her a little bit to put the team on her back and take ownership a little bit, saying it’s her team. I thought she responded well to it,” Ervin said. “She became vocal at practice, and leadership doesn’t have to just be from seniors. The second half of the season it really showed that she was one of our leadership playing-wise and vocally.”

Cleburne County lost other leaders and seniors Toni Epps, Hannah Gossage and Zieders to graduation, but a number of other contributors will return next season, including Akles, who still has three more seasons to play for the Tigers.

“My pastor always says the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement,” Ervin said. “She can get better. She’s just a ninth-grader, and actually, what’s scary is that she can get better. By the time she’s a senior, there’s no telling how good she could possibly be. She’s one of those kids that you’re just excited about coming to the ballpark to see play.”

Sports Writer Brandon Miller: 256-235-3575. On Twitter @bmiller_star.