Years before she would become a standout softball player at tradition-rich Stafford High School, Sophia (Alexander) Denning would head over to a coach’s backyard and learn how to pitch.
“There’s no telling how many tomato plants I killed in his garden,” Denning said with a smile, “by throwing wild pitches over the fence.”
Denning, however, learned her craft well in becoming one of southwest Missouri’s top pitchers, and now her career will soon be recognized by the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. The Hall will honor Denning with a Diamond 9 award at its upcoming Baseball Luncheon presented by the Ozarks Coca-Cola/Dr Pepper Bottling Company.
The luncheon is at 11 a.m. May 18 at the University Plaza Convention Center in downtown Springfield.
“I have so many great memories from high school softball that I will hold in my heart forever,” Denning said. “The community and the other athletic teams supported us in Strafford. My parents and little brother never missed one of our games. They were and still are some of my (and my sister’s) biggest fans.”
The luncheon features the naming of longtime Missouri State University athletic director Bill Rowe as a Missouri Sports Legend. The Hall also will induct former St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen, longtime Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs groundskeeper George Toma and Mansfield High School baseball coach Doug Jones.
Denning is among the Diamond 9, a group of former high school, college or pro standouts who made contributions in baseball or softball.
Denning became part of a tradition-rich softball program at Strafford High School before graduating in 2007. In both her junior and senior seasons, the pitcher was All-State, All-Ozarks and All-Mid-Lakes Conference. Her 28 wins in 2005 remains tied for fourth-best in a single season in state history.
“I started playing ball when I was 9 years old. Eddie Dake spent countless hours teaching me how to pitch,” Denning said. “My parents would take my sister (Anessa Alexander Roller) and me to Eddie and Jenny’s house to practice in their backyard, where he had several pitching mounds set up.”
Her dad, Twentin, and Danny Hendricks, a summer coach, also were influential, as well as her sister, mom Sherry and brother Blake. Softball was their world. If you remember when USA Softball great Jenny Finch stopped in Springfield, Denning made it a point of meeting her.
“We had so much fun and gained a lot of experience and made unforgettable memories,” Denning said. “This was a way of life for my family. Every weekend in the summer we would travel to play ball and every weekend off-season we were practicing.”
She went on, adding, “Lucky for me, half of my high school career, I got to play alongside my sister.” Denning also expressed appreciation that Strafford coach Shane Pierce encouraged players to give ‘life talks’ before practices – a strategy that strengthened the team’s bond.
Eventually, Denning worked her way into significant recognition and helped Strafford softball make its mark. The team finished as the Class 2 state runner-up in the fall 2005 season after back-to-back state semifinal appearances. The 2006 team reached the state quarterfinals.
Along the way, Denning was a four-time selection to the all-district team and a three-time selection to all-region team. Denning hit .483 and, as a pitcher, built an ERA of 1.19 with 550 career strikeouts. She then played one season at Drury University in 2008 before going on to complete her nursing degree at Cox College. She is now a registered nurse at Mercy Hospital.
“I wouldn’t have been where I ended up had it not been for my team,” said Denning, who with husband Doug are parents to Easton, Mason, Maddux and Oakley. “There is true meaning in the phrase, ‘There is no I in Team.’ As I look back, as a grown woman, I see how teamwork is vital with almost everything. The majority of my old high school softball teammates have careers that involve teamwork. Most of us are wives and moms, and I truly believe that being a part of a great team with amazing teamwork helped us with more than just softball. It began to prepare us for the real world.”