HARTSVILLE — THERE ARE A few things you can get only at a Hartsville High softball game. What other concession stand in the state serves up chicken bog or shrimp and grits?
Then there is the Cayla Drotar Show.
Over the past two seasons, Drotar’s right arm has produced 42 wins against four losses and one Class 3A state championship. The aluminum bat she carries to home plate is responsible over those two seasons for a .500 batting average and 16 home runs.
Did I mention that Drotar is a ninth-grader?
Even though the likes of Georgia, Alabama and UCLA continue to keep an eye on her at summer travel team games, Drotar has given South Carolina her word. In four more years, she will play for the Gamecocks. By then, she should even have her driver’s license.
For now, Drotar is your average 15-year-old who talks too much on her cell phone, craves the banana pudding milkshake at the local Cook-Out Restaurant and hangs out with her friends at Ruth’s Drive In.
Mostly, though, she enjoys being a softball prodigy.
When she ties her strawberry blonde ponytail with a bow of Hartsville’s black-and-red school colors, positions her left foot on the pitching rubber, then rocks and fires the softball, opposing players and interested fans have no idea of Drotar’s youthfulness.
One would think she has been playing the game for years, which, in fact, she has with a big assist from her first-grade teacher. That teacher passed out flyers one day, telling each student they did not have to take one.
Drotar took hers home and showed her father, Tim.
“Daddy, I really want to try this,” Drotar recalls saying about tryouts for an 8-and-under travel softball team. She was 6.
“Are you serious?” Dad replied.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, intent on learning a sport that both caught her fancy and dampened the wishes of her mother, Tammy, to continue dance lessons.
Dad headed out to Walmart, where he purchased an aluminum bat and a cheap faux-leather glove. From the first day of tryouts, it was apparent that Drotar was a natural. She could make contact with the ball and had a nice throwing motion while playing catch.
“It had to be God-blessed,” Dad says. “God touched her and said, ‘Hey, this is your talent, use it.’ ”
A couple of years later, the Drotars began attending Coker College softball games and sought tips from Coker pitcher Somer Bigham. The Drotars’ backyard at their home in the Pine Ridge community, some 18 miles from Hartsville, became Cayla’s pitching laboratory.
With Dad as the mad scientist, Drotar practiced daily the mechanics of pitching — snapping the ball at the hip, lengthening her stride, exploding off the rubber, tight spins with the ball, keeping her feet on the ground.
Before long, Drotar had developed an arsenal of pitches from fastball risers on both sides of the plate to changeups, curveballs, drop-curves and knuckleballs. She was advanced far beyond her years.
When she was 12, the Drotars drove to Greenville so Cayla could join a 14- to 16-year-old elite travel team. Drotar was so frightened to play with older girls she did not want to get out of the car, according to Dad.
Soon, she was the best player on the team.
She faced the same anxiety three years ago when she made the Hartsville High varsity squad as a 13-year-old seventh-grader. Drotar said she merely wanted to be accepted by her older teammates.
“I thought I was going to be out of place and nobody would like me,” she says. “They talked to me. It went pretty smooth.”
One day, several boys from the Hartsville varsity baseball team happened by the field while Drotar was practicing. They grabbed bats and took their swings. Not one touched Drotar for a hit.
It was the same kind of success Drotar found a season ago in pitching Hartsville to its first state softball championship. She went 25-1 with an earned run average below 1.00. She followed that with a 17-3 record and another sub-1.00 ERA this season, one that concluded Monday with a doubleheader loss to rival Darlington in the Lower State finals.
“Besides her pitching, what makes her so special is she’s also probably one of the top hitters in the state,” says Hartsville coach Bobby Sowell.
Drotar batted just below .500 a season ago with eight home runs, then matched those home run numbers this season with a batting average a couple of notches above .500. Most college programs have recruited Drotar as a pitcher and a hitter, and USC has assured her the chance to do both in Columbia.
Drotar’s success has created a buzz within the Hartsville community. For 6 p.m. games, the gates open at 2 so fans can strategically place their lawn chairs behind home plate.
The early-arriving fans leave and eventually return for chicken bog or shrimp and grits at the concession stand. Then they settle in to watch what is fast becoming known around Hartsville as the Cayla Drotar Show, one guaranteed to run another three seasons.