By Jason Burch
La Habra Journal
After the Lady Highlanders’ extra innings win at Sunny Hills two weeks ago, the team had all left to board the bus, but one player stayed behind gathering her gear and cleaning up the visiting dugout.
As she lugged her catcher’s gear into the bag, then threw it over her shoulder, Nikki Butler—who just moments prior hit the game winning home run—turned to walk away when her coach called out “oh that’s mama bear… if the girls need anything, she’s always got it.”
That moment captured the essence of what Butler means to the La Habra softball team.
Introducing her with the standard athlete denotation—you know, the team, position and name, followed by some recycled superlatives—wouldn’t properly capture her impact on the Lady Highlanders. Sure, she is all of the above. But Butler is more than just La Habra’s catcher. She is the team’s quintessential leader off the field and a maestro behind the plate.
So what’s a leader off the field look like?
Before the coaches arrive for a Monday practice, Butler takes the junior varsity team and runs them through the drills they will be doing for the day. Next, she rounds up the Lady Highlanders varsity squad for a team jog around the track. By the time the coaches arrive, both teams are already off and running into their respective drills.
On the field, Butler handles a talented group of pitchers and anchors a solid defense.
Butler calls pitches and directs the defense like a conductor would an orchestra. To truly appreciate Butler’s mastery behind the plate, you must first understand her trailblazing coach.
All coaches draw up gameplans, but Steve Harrington elevates it to an artform, orchestrating strategies like a composer. For over two decades, Harrington’s inimitable system and coaching style demanded that he called all in-game strategies from the dugout.
Astonishingly, Butler began picking up Harrington’s system within the first couple months, prompting him to do things a little differently.
You see, Butler became a student of the game at a young age thanks to her dad Craig, who also played the position. She has been working on her skills behind the plate for 13 years with him.
“My dad always taught me to just go with the flow, and I really liked it,” she said about playing catcher. “My dad has taught me everything I know, I have never been to a catching coach.”
She said that her travel-ball coaches and now Harrington have helped put the finishing touches on her game.
Though Butler and Harrington have a symbiotic relationship now, the two had their differences early on.
Harrington was impressed with Butler’s confidence and knowledge of the game from day-one, but those same attributes,which he loved, made it difficult for her to fully embrace his system.
“Nikki is a very confident girl and she really has a wealth of experience,” Harrington said. “She sees the game pretty well and she is coming off doing it the way it’s been done the past three years, but that system doesn’t work for me.”
The chasm came to a head rather quickly.
“So I’m sitting here implementing my system—which I know works—and she [was] trying to integrate some components from the other system, and that is when we butted heads,” Harrington explained. “I flat out told her, ‘A, you can figure out how to run my system and forget about that other one; or B, you can get out of here and play travel ball.’”
Many players in her shoes, who have had lots of success and received scholarship offers, would have looked at Harrington sideways, holding the mindset of, what can he possibly teach me, I already know how to play the game.
Butler took the ultimatum like a challenge. Deep down she knew that it was an opportunity to take her game to the next level. So Butler quickly became a pupil of Harrington’s system.
“She started asking a lot of questions,” Harrington said. “Then one day at practice I noticed she was taking notes on her cellphone.”
Harrington said there are still times when she will ask him what to do in certain situations, but for the most part Butler now orchestrates the games autonomously behind the plate.
“Sometimes he can just give me a look in certain situations during a game and I know that we are thinking the same thing,” Butler said.
Butler said that learning from Harrington the past few months has elevated her game and better prepared her for the collegiate level.
“It definitely gets complicated, as a hitter against him and as a player for him, you don’t know what he is going to come with, so you just have to have an open mind,” Butler said.
Butler’s aptitude on the diamond turned out to be a perfect union with Harrington’s complex system.
“He [Harrington] always comes to games prepared with a plan of what he is going to do when we play a specific team or coach,” Butler said. “He is definitely different when it comes to shifting the defense, you can never fall back on your heels in any game, but I feel like with him, you wouldn’t ever come close to it because you really don’t know what he is going to come at you with.”
Immediately after the Lady Highlanders beat Mater Dei to win the Woodbridge Tournament, Harrington felt Butler had figured it out and commented on how impressed he was with her ability to handle the game from behind the plate.
The Lady Highlanders have two of the top pitchers in Orange County in Janelle Rodriguez and Hannah Johnson. Their success rides on Butler’s ability to call the right pitches in the right situations and keep them locked into the game.
Rodriguez said that Butler’s confidence behind the plate and her initiative to take control of a game is what sets her apart.
“Sometimes I don’t even know what she is going to call, because she likes to mix it up and doesn’t want to throw the same pitch every single time, she wants to understand the batter,” Rodriguez said. “We will talk between innings and figure out how we want to pitch certain batters.”
Rodriguez also feels Butler’s ability to put the game in perspective has helped her a lot, especially when she gets in tough situations.
“I just remember her telling me one time, ‘it’s just for the fun of it and not a yes we are going to college for it, but… just have fun with it,’’ Rodriguez said. “She is really loud behind the plate and that’s what I like, in between pitches we’ll say ‘ok we got this’ and we know our game plan.”
Besides implementing the game plan and getting the most out of La Habra’s talented pitching staff, Butler also plays the position extremely well.
Baserunners haven’t stood a chance trying to run on her. On the season, Butler has only allowed one stolen base.
“Some teams don’t even try [to steal],” said Richard Flores, La Habra assistant coach. “And if they do, they get thrown out, she really takes that avenue away.”
Flores, who has been coaching at La Habra with Butler all four years, wasn’t surprised by how well Butler picked up her new coach’s system.
“Nikki grew up playing catcher, she studied the game and absorbed it” Flores said. “She really is the maestro of the defense.”
In addition to her defensive mastery, Butler also plays a pivotal role for the Lady Highlanders offense. She is one of the team’s top run producers, batting in the middle of the lineup.
Opposing teams have taken notice of Butler’s prowess with the bat as well. In critical situations she has been pitched around and intentionally walked.
Sunny Hills tried to do so a couple weeks ago, but that didn’t deter Butler from seizing the moment. Instead of standing there with the bat on her shoulder waiting to be walked, Butler stepped into one of the pitchouts and launched a home run over the center field fence, lifting the Highlanders to an extra innings win.
Her ability to lead the team and orchestrate the new system has helped the team put together a record season thus far. The Lady Highlanders are 22-1 overall, 6-0 in league and have now won 19 straight games.
Butler feels the Lady Highlanders transformation this season is a reflection of Harrington’s approach, which has been an equal mixture of discipline, gameplan and preparation.
Butler said that the team’s goal at this point is to finish out league strong and then focus on winning a CIF Championship.
She and Harrington are both confident that the Lady Highlanders have the talent and tools to do it this season, but know they have a lot of work to do before that happens.
In April, Butler officially signed her letter of intent to play softball at New Mexico State University. She said the overwhelming support from the community in New Mexico was strikingly similar to La Habra, which made choosing the Land of Enchantment a surprisingly easy decision.
“It was kind of a love at first sight thing, it totally shocked me how much I liked [New Mexico State],” Butler said. “The coaches, the girls and everything is so family oriented, going out there would be like my home away from home.”
Butler said she is looking forward to playing for the Aggies and studying criminal justice.
For now, Butler will continue to focus on helping the Lady Highlanders continue on one of their best seasons ever.