Contributed by Shelby Dermer with Cincinnati Enquirer
Photos courtesy of Payne family
CHCA senior softball player Finley Payne dreams of one day being a biomedical engineer, creating new medical devices that help discover groundbreaking medical advancements. To pursue that dream, she'll start college at Harvard University this fall.
Until then, though, Payne is focused on continuing to make life difficult for Miami Valley Conference pitchers and hitters, while taking the "Legally Blonde" jokes in stride.
Payne is the two-time defending Miami Valley Conference-Scarlet division player of the year. This spring, she's hitting .743 with two doubles, a triple, nine homers, 33 runs scored, 31 RBI and 10 stolen bases.
Had the 2020 spring season been played as scheduled, Payne's name would likely be sprinkled on many Ohio High School Athletic Association state softball records. She is still on the all-time OHSAA softball lists for career home runs (26), most RBI in a season (60 in 2019) and highest single-season batting average twice (.745 in 2019 and .742 in 2021).
Payne set out on her goal to play Division I softball in the Ivy League when she was only 12 years old. It was always the dream to wear the crimson of Harvard University, which has an acceptance rate of just 5%.
"I always wanted to get the best education that I could while also playing the sport I love," Payne said. "What better place than Harvard to do that?"
Payne carries a 4.25 GPA and scored a 32 on the ACT, all while grinding on and off the field to become one of the best softball players in the city.
In 2020, Payne would do her school work online, then go to the backyard and practice her swing with tee-work and soft-toss sessions.
"I was devastated, but that was when I got to work on my game the most," Payne said. "That's when I really developed the most as a player because of that time I had off."
Six months later, Payne was back in player-of-the-year form, hitting .742 with 27 extra-base hits, including 10 long balls, and 54 RBIs. She scored 41 runs, helping lead CHCA to a 16-6 season that included three playoff wins.
A loaded school and sports schedule (Payne also plays tennis in the fall) could get overwhelming for any teenager. But Payne developed a strong work ethic from an early age and never took her foot off the pedal, finding time to prepare for Advanced Placement (AP) exams on the bus to a road game or scheduling study sessions with teammates around a doubleheader.
"I think CHCA definitely helps and is great for preparing me for college. My parents, as well, have helped me develop these habits where you have your priorities," Payne said. "It also helps that I love what I do. I love learning about biology and chemistry, my favorite subjects, and I also love softball. It's something that I love to do and it doesn't feel like work."
On Oct. 1, 2020, while attending a CHCA football game, Payne's dream of Cambridge, Massachusetts, was realized when her acceptance letter came.
"It was probably the best feeling I've ever had in my life," Payne said of being accepted. "It was pretty incredible."
After a personal accomplishment off the field, Payne had a personal softball moment she'll remember long after her playing days when she smacked three home runs in a 13-2 win over Roger Bacon April 26. Payne has gone deep nine times on the year (seven in the last six games), but finding quality at-bats has been a struggle based on her impressive history of clearing the bases.
Two days after her trio of homers, Payne hit two more in a win over Norwood but was intentionally walked three times. This season, Payne has walked 16 times in 13 games, more than double her base-on-balls total from a season ago (7) as opposing teams take the bat out of her hands rather than risk her barreling up another ball.
"I take it as a compliment, I guess," Payne said. "When I get up there and they say 'take your base,' it's so frustrating."
Payne takes out that frustration when it's her turn to pitch. She's walked only 11 batters in 44 innings compared to 81 strikeouts. Payne is 7-2 on the year with a microscopic 0.86 ERA. For her prep career, she is 30-9 with 443 strikeouts. On Wednesday, she fired her fourth career no-hitter in a run-rule win over Clark Montessori.
Payne enjoyed immediate success as a freshman in 2019. In her first three games, she was 3-0 in the circle, giving up one earned run and four hits over 17 innings while walking just two and striking out 45. At the plate, she went 8-for-11 with a homer, triple, two doubles and 10 RBIs.
"I had always been in a kind of environment where I've been put through challenges," Payne said. "I was surprised (at the fast start), but I was really just caught up in the moment."
Though she doesn't pitch during summer ball, Payne saw an opportunity to help CHCA win as many games as possible. After all, that's what made her fall in love with softball in the first place.
"It's a really good way to meet people and travel – the team aspect of it makes softball unique," she said.
As a team, CHCA is in great shape at the right time. The Eagles are (11-3) and are looking to reach new heights after making history last season as the first CHCA squad to reach the district championship game.
"We really want to make it to regionals this year," Payne said. "The team looks really strong and we're really excited about how we're looking."
CHCA is the No. 1 seed in its Division III district bracket. The Eagles get a first-round bye before opening postseason play with either No. 9 Seven Hills or No. 11 Seven Hills on May 11 at home.
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