A striking success
After a disappointing junior season, Steffi Best has enjoyed a record-setting season for Palos Verdes High School’s softball program
By Randy Angel
Standing in the middle of the circle on the infield of Mira Costa’s softball field, Palos Verdes pitcher Steffi Best knew all eyes were on her.
It had only been three games since the senior had set the school career record for strikeouts but claiming the single-season record was the one she had set her sights on.
“Halfway through the preseason my dad thought I should try to set the strikeout record,” Best said. “I’m always up for a challenge. It helps keep me keep focused.”
The record came in the sixth inning of a 2-1 victory over Bay League rival Mira Costa on April 29, in a game where Best finished with 14 strikeouts, eclipsing the mark of 207 set by Arianna Erceg in 2010.
In a 3-1 home victory against Redondo, Best topped Erceg’s four-season career mark of 455, also set in 2010. Best is proud to have accomplished the feat in only three seasons and considers the wins against Redondo and Mira Costa as the most memorable games of her prep career.
“Beating Redondo and setting the career record in the same game was extra special,” Best said. “It was a total team effort and a game I’ll always remember.”
Best is the first to admit that her record-setting performance was in doubt entering her senior season.
Facing as many ups and downs as her pitching repertoire, Best had to overcome adversity before becoming one of the most accomplished softball players in Palos Verdes High School history.
Best missed her entire freshman year because of a torn ACL and wondered if she would be able to play again.
“I worked hard in rehab four to five times a week and kept telling myself that something good would come of the situation,” Best recalled. “But it was hard sitting on the bench and watching my teammates have fun on the field.”
Best then suffered through a disappointing junior season after being named to the All-CIF Southern Section Division 3 team as a sophomore when she posted a 15-4 record with a 2.24 ERA while striking out 153 batters in 140.2 innings. She also batted .390 that season with 28 RBI.
“I worked hard on different pitches, particularly my rise ball,” Best said. “That’s why I think the single season record means more to me coming off my junior year. My confidence had dropped so I wanted to start this season on a high note.”
Although she batted .362 with 19 RBI in 2015, Best’s record plummeted to 7-14 and her ERA jumped to 3.31. She finished with 132 strikeouts in 118.1 innings.
“During my sophomore year juniors Johniann Wahl and Kasey Halleen provided much-needed mental support and we became great friends,” Best said. “They really helped me through a difficult junior year and did their best to keep my confidence level up.”
This season Best led Palos Verdes to a share of the Bay League title with Redondo, finishing the regular season with a 14-8 record, an impressive 0.34 ERA, and 254 strikeouts with only 35 walks in 1343.1 innings while holding opponents to a .183 batting average.
She also led her team in batting average (.474), RBI (22) and doubles (9), along with two triples and two home runs.
“I only have one month left in high school so I want to go all out,” Best said as the Sea Kings entered the postseason. “I spoke with the team about each game possibly being the last and for some players, maybe the last of their softball careers
If we piece everything together and play one inning at a time, I think we’ll do well in the playoffs. I’m very proud of this team because we surprised a lot of people and really came out of nowhere.”
Best credits her turnaround season to the support of her father, pitching coaches and reading Throw Like a Girl: How to Dream Big & Believe in Yourself, a book written by former Olympian and University of Arizona standout pitcher Jennie Finch.
“I feel I took two steps forward from last season,” Best said. “After my sophomore season, I didn’t think I had to work as hard and it showed. It was all mental. I still had the same physical abilities but I began to question myself. Jennie Finch’s book helped me get back on track.
“My dad never stopped believing in me. He has always been there for me and he told me that ‘I have to control the controllables.’ He taught me how to approach each pitch and know what to throw.”
Best said she relishes the pressure and attention that comes with the pitching position, which has made her work harder.
“During my high school years I have molded myself into becoming a leader,” Best said. “If I can be a leader on the team, my teammates feel more confident in having my back and I theirs.”
Best is not an overpowering pitcher throwing in the high 50 to low 60 mph range and feels the curveball is her most dominant pitch but the changeup is her favorite to throw.
“Hitters struggle to hit it (changeup) and it comes natural to me,” Best explained. “I have good command of the pitch and feel comfortable using it in almost every situation no matter what the count on the batter.”
Best hopes the Sea Kings will have a playoff run comparable to 2014 when the team reached the CIF-SS Division 3 semifinals. She said her team’s 24-7 performance that season is among the highlights of her athletic career.
“I have been coaching for 23 years in several sports and Steffi has been one of the best I have had the opportunity to coach,” Palos Verdes head coach Patrick Fresch commented. “She brings a great attitude and work ethic every day, is a natural leader, and she brings everyone up around her. She’s been a huge part of the program and will be sorely missed next year.”
Fresch believes Best’s ability to mix up her pitches and keep hitters off balance is the key to her success.
“She can get an out with several different pitches, and she hits her spots,” Fresch added. “She also has a great competitive instinct and drive. She competes on every pitch, something that is very hard to teach and it comes to her naturally.”
Best has a strong athletic background, which she feels she gets from her parents. Her father Tom played college football at Cornell and her mother, Callie Kourtis is an avid cyclist and paddleboarder.
“I’ve been totally amazed at how Steffi has responded this season,” said her father who has kept stats for GameChanger during her club ball career. “There will be a void when she goes off to college. I tease her about my retiring, buying a ratty old RV and parking it near her new home field.”
Softball has played a major role in Best’s life. Along with softball, which she began playing when she was five years old, Best has played soccer, basketball, volleyball and ran cross country. She narrowed down the field to softball and soccer while in middle school,.
“I really like soccer and played on the Exile club soccer team but did not have time for soccer and softball,” Best said. “Every weekend and most weeknights was softball and I was missing a lot of soccer games, only attending the practices.”
Best joined her first travel ball team when she was 10 years old and enjoyed a season she will never forget playing for Garden Grove-based Victory USA. The team won the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) Class A 10U championship in Johnson City, Tenn. with Best earning a complete game victory in the championship game.
All but one of the 11 players on that team are still playing with eight of them being committed to Division I college programs.
It was the first of three national championships for Best, who won two Premier Girls Fastpitch (PGF) titles with the Orange County Batbusters (18U in 2015 and 14U in 2013). Best also was on the ASA 12U runner-up team in 2011.
Best now plays for the San Fernando Valley-based So Cal Choppers 18U Gold team.
“Victory USA was the best team I ever played on,” Best said. “Many of the players remain my best friends to this day. I loved the environment of club ball and relationships we built. My teammates from that team will probably be at my wedding one day. Playing with players from different communities was exciting and a new experience for me.”
Best said she can remember everything about her experience traveling to and playing in Tennessee.
“I remember the rain delays, eating at restaurants and traveling with the team,” Best recalled. ”Our head coach also coached an older team and was in a different state at the time. The assistant coach had a daughter on our team who was a pitcher. I didn’t expect to pitch so I wasn’t nervous and even took a nap before the game. I was so surprised when he called on me to start. We won 7-1 and I’ll never forget getting back to the hotel and we all jumped in the pool with our uniforms on.”
Best considers her father and Victory USA coach Mark Campbell as having the biggest influences on her softball career, along with pitching coaches Sherell Vance and former All-American University of Arizona pitcher Susie Parra.
“Steffi has come a long way,” said Vance who coached her since Best was five years old. “She once was a shy quiet little girl with glasses who would barely speak to me. Now she has developed into a beautiful young woman who can call me whenever she needs anything.
“Prior to this high school season I suggested she set some goals to attain. Steffi met those goals and went above and beyond. Steffi can do anything she puts mind to. I would consider Steff as a finesse pitcher. She is great at hitting locations and has tremendous spin and control.”
“Their (pitching coaches) mindsets formed me as a pitcher,” Best said. “I’m not the fastest pitcher but they taught me how to work on spins. A batter can always catch up to a fastball.
“My dad has always so supportive and I played for Coach Campbell for a few years,” Best said. “Coach Campbell was a retired cop, had the big mustache and was very intimidating. He made us practice until we got it right. I remember his talks after the games and I learned so many lessons about day-to-day life. He drove me to be better and taught me that there is always room for improvement.”
Best discovered that she preferred having a tougher coach that would help her become a better player.
“I remember being so nervous before my first tryout for club ball,” Best said. “Coach Campbell was so nice to me but I didn’t think I made the team. I was standing by myself while the other girls were waiting in line to get fitted for their uniforms. He told me to get in line and I was so excited. But from that point on, beginning with our first practice, he became a hard-nosed coach.”
Best began being noticed by college scouts prior to entering high school, but after her knee injury in her freshman year, she lost contact with schools like Washington and Florida.
During her sophomore year, Best attended softball camps and eventually committed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo after a trip to the school on the Central Coast.
“To put my mind in position to realize I’d be away for four years was difficult,” Best said.”I went on a trip to Boston University but they had a completely different field and no stadium and softball-wise, I couldn’t see myself there and not being able to play year round.”
Best called Cal Poly from the Boston airport and told them she wanted to sign with them.
“On the flight home, I was so happy I couldn’t sleep,” Best said. “All of the hard worked had paid off, plus the campus is beautiful with the mountains nearby and the beach only 15 miles away.”
Best is excited with the prospect of playing alongside Sierra Hyland, Cal Poly’s pitching ace who will be a senior next season.
“I’ve watched her career and how she has shaped the team,” Best explained. “She’s the definition of a leader and I want to follow in her footsteps. I’ll also get to work with former UCLA pitcher Ally Carda (2015 Pac-12 Player of the Year now an assistant coach at Cal Poly). It’s the best opportunity anyone can ask for.”
Best’s decision to attend Cal Poly comes as no surprise, allowing her to enjoy nature throughout the year and providing the opportunity for her parents to watch her play games in person.
“I love the outdoors including hiking, camping and traveling,” Best said. “I’m at the beach a lot. I enjoy doing anything beach related like biking, volleyball and swimming.”
Best is also a bit of a shutterbug, having served an internship last summer with Redondo Beach resident and photographer Randy Ruby who specializes in beach photography.
“My grandpa gave me his old Minolta film camera,” Best said. “My friends and I went to Big Sur during Spring Break and I took a lot of photos there. It’s a great hobby.”
Best hopes to maintain her weighted 4.0 GPA heading into college but considers older sister Vasi, a 20-year-old student at USC, the smarter of the two siblings.
“I tell her she got the brains, but I got the athleticism in the family,” Best joked.
Best credits her parents for her success on and off the field and shares special relationships with both despite their being divorced.
“They have always there for me and it has been great to be able to come home to them,” Best said. “I consider them both my best friends. When my sister went to off to college, my bond with my parents really grew. I can tell them anything.”
Tom Best was ecstatic with his daughter’s decision to attend Cal Poly.
“It’s close enough for road trips, “Tom said. “Plus, being in the Big West they will play Southern California schools like Long Beach State, Fullerton, Riverside and Northridge.”
Best is planning to study Communications at Cal Poly which will give her as many options as her pitch selection.
“I could go into graphics, journalism or public relations,’ Best said. “But my mom feels I’d do well as a broadcaster.”