PALMETTO -- Shelly Riker was known as the perfect thief.
Coaches often joked when you faced the former Palmetto High star on the softball diamond, you better lock down the bases because she was liable to steal them all.
When she finished her softball career at Palmetto in 2000, Riker had gained national fame.
She was to softball what Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock and Ty Cobb were to baseball.
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In 2000, she set the national high school record by stealing 131 consecutive bases before getting gunned down at Port Charlotte.
The record has virtually stood the test of time. She now ranks second nationally only behind Kristy Roberts (Alabama Danville), who stole 151 straight in 2003, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations record book. The national career mark is 320, and there are 10 girls listed with 200 or more.
Riker stole 177 bases in 181 attempts during her high school career.
Brian Bryant, who coached Riker all four years at Palmetto, said she could've been the tops in the nation, but he often shut her down because he didn't want to embarrass opponents.
"Once we got a big lead, and that happened often, I wouldn't let her steal and sometimes took her out of the game. I regret that. I believe she could've stolen well over 200
bases," he said.
In softball, a runner can't leave a base until the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. Bryant said Riker did it but never got caught.
"Umpires would tell me they knew she was leaving early, but they couldn't catch her, and in her four years was never called for that," Bryant said. "She used a rocking motion off the base and the umpire had a hard time with that. She was the absolute best at leaving early. She knew how to time a pitcher's release. She was a base bandit and perfected the art. But she was fast."
Riker went to USF, where she set the career stolen base record and was recently inducted into the USF Softball Hall of Fame.
She was a three-time Conference USA selection. She made the conference All Freshman team and was chosen all-conference two other years, finishing her career with 104 stolen bases, which is still the program record.
"Getting into the hall of fame was very special to me. It is something you dream about as a little girl," Riker said. "I remember as a freshman telling myself that is something I would like to do."
Riker played the game with passion, something she does today as youth pastor and executive pastor of Church on The Rock in Palmetto.
"I remember preaching to my stuffed animals when I was a little girl, so this is something I've always wanted to do," said the 32-year-old Riker. "I felt this was a calling for me at a very young age and something I have pursued."
Before her senior year at Palmetto, Riker said something that was an eye opener for Bryant and made him believe she was destined to do some type of ministry.
"We had lost in the region final two years in a row, and before her last season Shelly says to me, 'You know what I want for this year?' " Bryant recalled. "I said you want to win a state and she said, no. She wanted to help at least one girl on the team find salvation. I felt kind of small after she said that."
Riker graduated USF majoring in secondary English education, but wanted to do more and earned a master's degreee in mental health counseling.
She worked as a substance abuse and mental health counselor for six years in Tampa and then at Manatee Glens. She came back home four years ago when a youth pastor position opened at Church on The Rock.
"I run all the volunteer ministry at the church with what they call our dream team," Riker says. "Working as a youth pastor is what I enjoy most. We have an amazing team of student leaders and are helping kids get connected with the lord Jesus Christ. What changed me was God's love, and we are using that to help kids who are struggling. My teen relationship with God helped define me."
Shelly's sister Kim, who was a standout catcher for Palmetto and played at the former Manatee Community College (now State College of Florida), works in banking but is involved with her sister and is a regular volunteer in the youth ministries program.
Bryant has seen her address the youth at her church and calls Riker "awesome." "She knows how to connect with the kids and is so inspiring," he said.
As for her exploits on the softball diamond, Bryant said he doesn't believe there will be another like her. So far he has been right, because no one in the area has come close to matching her prowess for base stealing.
"She outworked everybody. If we had a three-hour practice, she would stay and hit until her hands hurt so bad she couldn't hold the bat anymore," Bryant said.