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Tori Vidales does not remember the first time she picked up a bat. Texas A&M's softball-pummeling first baseman has always had a knack for hitting and says she's had a bat in her hands for as long as she can remember.
Luckily for Aggie fans, the La Porte native will continue to have a powerful bat in her hands for the next few seasons.
A star on the diamond, Vidales is looking to build off a remarkable freshman campaign and lead the Aggies to new heights in the nation's premier softball conference as well as a trip to the Women's College World Series.
Hall of Fame coach Jo Evans said Vidales has the highest hitting IQ of any player she has coached in her 30-year career.
"(What makes her that way) is her confidence," Evans said. "She has this almost innate level of confidence. I don't know a lot of athletes--men or women--that have that kind of self-confidence and knowledge (of their craft). You don't get to be that confident without a lot of knowledge, information and preparation."
Vidales constantly talks hitting, whether it be with her hitting coach, Gerry Glasco; her teammates in the dugout; her brother, Josh, a star senior on the University of Houston's baseball team; or her parents.
Her father, Johnny, starred at Texas Tech as a pitcher and first baseman in the 1980s, even earning the team's most valuable player award and becoming an All-Southwest Conference honoree in 1986. Her mother, Rhonda, a tremendous athlete herself, not only played volleyball at Blinn College but also turned heads as the leadoff hitter and fastest player on a co-ed slow-pitch softball team that traveled the state.
"My mom is so fast," Vidales said. "She played (softball) until she was seven or eight months pregnant with Josh. (Even then) she would hit the ball and take off."
Josh also provided some motivation as Vidales began to develop her love of the game.
"I've always wanted to do what Josh was doing," she said. "Whenever he picked up a bat, I picked up a bat. Whenever he threw a ball, I had to throw a ball."
As their young family grew, Johnny and Rhonda spent many hours outside with Josh and Tori in an effort to hone their children's skills--first through tee ball, then in baseball and softball.
"We'd just kind of talk about the game, the situation they'd be in," Johnny Vidales recalled. "And when (Tori) started getting older, we started talking more about how people would pitch her."
As an 11-year-old, Tori hit a home run off the top of a fence 225 feet away. From that moment on, she no longer worried about trying to be a speedy leadoff hitter.
Tori Vidales burst onto the scene as a freshman last year when she smashed 20 home runs. Her sophomore season is off to a good start, as Vidales boasts a batting average of .386 with six home runs and 20 RBI in the team's first 22 games.
In eighth grade, her select team was playing in an older age division at a summer tournament. The team did well--very well, in fact, by winning the championship. Since the girls on Vidales' team were not yet in high school, NCAA rules prohibited contact from the college coaches who were scouting the event. But when Vidales reached the appropriate age, Evans did not waste any time making an impression on the budding star.
"Coach Evans was one of the first (coaches) who came up to me," Vidales recalled. "She asked me where I was from, and what positions I liked to play. She was just very personable, and I think that's one of the things that really stood out. She felt more like a friend than a coach. She made things very comfortable."
Vidales eventually attended one of the Aggies' summer camps.
"When you watched her play you were like, 'Wow, that player is special,'" Evans said. "I liked her personality a lot. She's an outgoing, fun kid. Her parents are fun, and they are just a good family. It was really exciting when she chose (A&M)."
Vidales committed early in the recruiting process, pledging to play at Texas A&M in June prior to her sophomore year in high school, just a few months before the Aggies announced their move to the Southeastern Conference. During that summer and the two seasons that followed, college coaches from around the nation watched Vidales dominate summer tournaments knowing that she would be wearing maroon and white in college.
Vidales' first chance to take the field for the Aggies reinforced her early commitment. She even remembers the exact uniform combination: maroon pants, white socks and maroon stirrups.
"It was so surreal," Vidales recalled. "It's something you dream about your entire life. I was like, 'Alright, what am I going to do with this moment? Am I going to succeed? Am I going to push myself harder and help my team out and get my job done?'
"I felt like I was meant to be here. I looked down (at my jersey) and knew this is where I was supposed to be."
A&M softball fans were certainly happy about that, as Vidales took the SEC by storm. She started every game for the Aggies during her rookie season--primarily at third base--and hit .368 with an eye-opening 20 home runs. Opponents tried to avoid pitching to Vidales, walking her 46 times. But even that did not stop her success at the plate. She helped lead the team to 40 wins, an appearance in the finals of the NCAA Norman Regional and the program's highest-ever finish in SEC play.
With freshman Riley Sartain joining the team in 2016, Vidales was asked to move to first base to make the team stronger in two positions.
Her response: "I'm all for it, coach. I just want to win."
Despite Vidales' tremendous year-one success and the fact that teams now have a season of film to decide how to pitch against her, Evans is not worried about the slugger suffering the dreaded "sophomore slump." Through the first 22 games of 2016, Vidales has already pounded six home runs, five doubles and 22 RBI.
"She's not someone who has fear. For some players, a great freshman year may make them feel pressure and wonder, 'How am I going to out-do that?' But that's not Tori. She has no fear."
-- Texas A&M softball coach Jo Evans
After already establishing herself as one of the best hitters in the nation's toughest conference, opposing coaches would be wise to pay attention when the right-handed Vidales steps up to the plate.
"I think she can get a lot better," Evans said. "I really do. When you look at her this season, the times she gets out she's most often getting herself out. She gets anxious, and wants to be the one--not in an arrogant, 'watch me' way. It's an, 'I'm the one that can do this' way. There are just some times where she needs a little bit more patience."
Still, fans will rarely see Vidales get upset in those instances where she strikes out with runners on base or misses a chance to cash in on a grooved pitch. Instead, she embraces the challenge.
A native of La Porte, Texas, Vidales started her career at third base before making the switch to first base in 2016. Coach Jo Evans said Vidales has a very high softball IQ, making her presence on the field a big benefit for a team searching for its first Women's College World Series appearance since 2008.
"You have to have a very confident mindset during a game," Vidales said. "It's like, 'Hey, you got me this time. But don't worry, I'm coming back for you.' It's a little competition between you and the pitcher to see who can win the at-bats. It's very fun."
Vidales is having fun off the field too, enjoying her time as an agricultural communications and journalism major.
"The professors and everyone over in that major are so helpful and willing to give you information about anything you need," she said. "There are really great people working there."
In addition, Vidales spends time as a student worker at 12th Man Productions, the athletic department's video wing, where she experiences much of the behind-the-scenes hard work that the industry demands.
With the family's home in La Porte less than a half-hour's drive from Josh and the University of Houston campus, and Tori's team less than 100 miles away in College Station, Johnny and Rhonda are blessed with the opportunity to see their children play quite often.
"It's outstanding," Johnny Vidales said. "You can't ask for a better situation. We're at her games, watching him online, or vice versa, now that we have the SEC (Network). We kind of get the best of both worlds."
The parents even save money on t-shirts, as both their children proudly wear No. 8 on their jerseys. When the number became available after last season, Vidales quickly claimed it so she could be like her brother one more time.
Having her parents in the stands, no matter the shirt color, means the world to Vidales.
"It's so cool having that support system," she said. "To know they're always going to be there for me, and all the sacrifices they've made for me to be successful--I just really can't thank them enough for everything they've done for me."
With plenty of time to decide what her post-graduation future holds, Vidales is considering several paths. She wants to try and play in the 2020 Olympics, and says that Evans has been encouraging her to consider a career in coaching. There's also an interest in a future in broadcasting.
But before that, she is focused on helping A&M smash its way back to the Women's College World Series.
The Aggies are off to one of the best starts in school history. For a team that was picked to finish ninth in the league, the sky appears to be the limit.
"This group is something special, and a lot of people are starting to realize that," Vidales said. "We feel like we can really (get to the World Series). Failures will come, but success comes right after. We're hoping to do special things this year."
Matt Simon, director of digital media for 12th Man Productions, is a 1998 graduate of Texas A&M University.
This is my way of telling Texas A&M 'Thank you.'"