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Cool under pressure

Benton’s Houston dominant in senior-season title run by Erick Taylor | June 3, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

There's a long-standing adage that says pressure can either bust pipes or make diamonds, but there's no such choice when it comes to Benton's Alyssa Houston.

The proof is in the pudding.

"She's one of those rare players that doesn't ever get bothered in pressure situations," Benton softball Coach Heidi Cox said. "You have some that can be affected negatively when things get tight and the pressure hits. In Alyssa's case, it's just the opposite.

"She thrives when the pressure is on, but she does it in a way where you'd never know there was any pressure on her. Like she doesn't flinch, she doesn't get rattled. ... she just goes out and does her thing."

Whenever Houston did her thing, it usually resulted in her busting up opposing teams at the plate and on the mound. That's also what helped make her arguably one of the best high school softball players to ever come out of Arkansas.

The 5-10 standout produced every way imaginable this past season for the three-time Class 5A state champions, which led directly to her earning the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's All-Arkansas Preps Softball Player of the Year distinction for the second consecutive season.

As a power hitter, Houston hit a mind-boggling .687 with 13 home runs and 52 runs batted in. She also had an on-base percentage of .738 for a Lady Panthers team that scored 10 runs or more 18 times.

But as impressive as those statistics are, it's what the Stanford signee did in the pitcher's circle that was possibly even more astonishing.

Houston struck out 254 batters in 110 2/3 innings and had an ERA of .506. She only gave up 24 hits and eight runs total on the year and even had a late-season streak where she didn't allow a hit for 37 consecutive innings.

"I was gonna do any and everything to help my team, and that included trying to be the best leader that I could be," Houston said. "I really wanted to give the underclassmen all of the knowledge that I'd learned over the years. When you're a freshman or sophomore playing for what we brought into history, that's a lot of pressure. A lot of them were kind of like 'oh my gosh, we've got to be perfect'. But I would let them know that you don't have to be perfect.

"I strike out hitting, I've made errors, it is what it is. I wanted my teammates to feel and sense that if I'm not stressed out, there was no reason for them to be stressed out. I wanted to relieve as much pressure off of them as possible."

Yet, no one could blame anyone on the Lady Panthers for feeling a bit under duress at the start of the season.

Benton had gone undefeated the previous two years and established a state-record 67-game winning streak before dropping a 2-0 decision to Saline County rival and eventual Class 6A titlist Bryant on March 11. But according to Houston, that loss was a blessing in disguise for her team.

"I don't think any of us wanted to lose to Bryant, with that being our rival," she explained. "I do think we handled it in stride, and nobody really took it to heart. We didn't expect it or want it to happen, but we moved on from it pretty quick. After that, we were just ready to go out and play relaxed."

But pressure isn't anything out of the ordinary for Houston.

Coming off a junior season in which she hit better than .400 with double-digit home runs and compiled an ERA of .492 in nearly 86 innings pitched, the expectations were understandably high for her going in to her last year in a Benton uniform.

"When you've done what she did the year before, people expect you to do even bigger things," said Cox, who's the two-time Arkansas Democrat-Gazette All-Arkansas Preps Softball Coach of the Year. "But Alyssa breeds confidence and always stays calm. She always held her composure even when she was on the mound and didn't get a couple of the calls that she wants. She holds that emotion really well, and that's one of the things that make her such a special talent.

"And the thing is, she handles adversity about as good as anyone. If she doesn't get a hit, she'll go to the mound and handle her business there. If she's given up a hit, she's able to go to the plate and respond. She's just built different."

That ability to channel things and turn them into an advantage seemingly comes natural for Houston, who admitted that she regularly and instinctively jokes with her teammates and coaches any chance she gets. That, in turn, indirectly soothes any situation that could be perceived as adverse.

"Coming in, people would always think that I had a lot of pressure on me to go out and perform, but to be honest, I didn't feel that way," she explained. "It was kind of like people would try to put pressure on me rather than trying to take it away, but it's times like that where you have to be relaxed, play your game and do the things that you put so much work in to do."

That fierceness should benefit her once she gets to Stanford in the fall. The Cardinal reached the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2004, and Houston is hoping the team can make that an annual outing.

"I'm really excited to get a chance just to experience college softball," she said. "I want to learn as much as I can from the older girls on the team because you can always learn more about the game. Plus, if I can make it to the World Series at least once, that'd be a big thing for me.

"The coaches out there are amazing, too, just like the ones I had at Benton. So I really can't wait to get started."

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