EAST MANATEE - Katie Gardner loves softball. She's played the game most of her life and looks more than comfortable at bat or in the field.
But Gardner isn't one of those girls who takes herself or softball too seriously. Her game face is more likely to hold a smile than a scowl.
Whether she's speaking Spanish at practice or cracking jokes with her double-play partner, Taylor Paulsen, the sophomore knows how to make the game fun.
Gardner is one of the team CCs (as in class clowns), Paulsen said. Though softball doesn't hold the same meaning for her that it used to, Gardner can still have a good time.
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"When I was a kid it was really fun. The cool thing to do was to play softball," Gardner said. "Now there is so much other stuff . . . new priorities."
But don't mistake Gardner's fun-loving approach as a mask for her lack of skill on the diamond. Gardner is plenty talented.
She made varsity last season as a freshman at Lakewood Ranch before breaking her collarbone. Now, as a transfer at Braden River, she is helping the Pirates establish themselves as a force in Manatee County softball, even though the school is less than two years old.
While the season is still young, Gardner is among the team leaders in hits and RBIs as the Pirates started the season undefeated. Last week in a win over Arcadia DeSoto, Gardner went 4-for-4 with four RBIs.
"I grew up playing with a lot of these girls, but I was kind of nervous coming over because they already had their team," said Gardner, who still keeps in touch with some of her former Lakewood Ranch teammates and had lunch with Mustangs sophomore outfielder Becca Seay a couple weeks ago. "But we have a bunch of really talented players."
For Gardner this year is about more than adjusting to new teammates. It's also about making the move a few steps over to shortstop.
A natural second baseman, Gardner had not played much shortstop before the season, and she questioned whether her arm was strong enough to handle the shift. But Braden River coach Kaththea Smith liked her range and inserted Gardner at the position from Day 1.
With extra work on improving her arm and a few weeks to get used to the footwork, Gardner is starting to feel more comfortable at her new spot.
But because of her personality, the switch to a new team was less of a problem. Gardner became fast friends with Paulsen, who played shortstop last year and moved to second this season to make room for the Mustangs transfer.
"We have a bond where we know what each other is thinking," Paulsen said. "We even do it at school. She makes me push harder, too. I want to do my best to stay (at second) because I want us to stay together."
The duo even gave themselves a nickname - The BMIE Click. Clearly they share a love abbreviations. That one stands for "Best Middle Infield Ever."
Smith said it's important to have players such as Gardner keep things light. The Pirates' first-year coach runs a strict program, but she even gets a kick out of Gardner sometimes.
"It's good because it shows they are girls (having a good time)," said Smith, who lauded Gardner's energy, effort and her surprisingly live bat for a relatively small girl. "As far as being goofy and fun, yes they are, but I think they know when to tighten up."
Despite Gardner's free-spirit persona, she knows nothing is more fun than winning, and the Pirates have been doing plenty of that.
"I have some pretty high expectations," Gardner said. "When we are on, we're pretty hard to beat."