Estancia High pitcher Kelly Hinkle is the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / March 21, 2014)

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Estancia High senior Kelly Hinkle said her softball pitching three years ago was "bad."

Eagles assistant coach "Papa" Joe Salcido put it more bluntly, saying that Hinkle "couldn't pitch a lick" as a freshman.

It wasn't totally unexpected. She had only began playing softball two years before that, starting as an outfielder. When Hinkle volunteered to pitch in her freshman year, it started off as just an inning or two per game. She couldn't really find the strike zone.

"She was walking an average of 12, 13 players a game," said Salcido, who couldn't blame Hinkle for this. The reason he said he originally wanted to cut her from the team was different.

"Not that Kelly didn't try, but she was just a little too passive for me," Salcido said.

Hinkle might still be a bit soft-spoken, but she has put in the work with Salcido, year-round. In fact, that's probably an understatement.

Hinkle now is a senior captain for the Eagles, who have their best team in years. Those pitches that used to miss the zone are now much more precisely placed.

"No one works harder on this team than Kelly Hinkle," Estancia Coach Carrie Lester said. "Not even a close second, at this point."

Hinkle has proved it for Estancia (8-2), which opened Orange Coast League play Thursday by routing Laguna Beach, 23-1, on the road. The word that Salcido uses to describe her now is "persistence."

Her fourth year as a pitcher on varsity has been Hinkle's best so far. She has a sparkling 2.35 earned-run average, much-improved from her 4.79 ERA a year ago, which still was good enough to garner her first-team All-Orange Coast League honors and a spot on the Newport-Mesa Dream Team.

As impressively, the walks aren't a problem anymore. She's issued just 15 of them in 53 2/3 innings, while striking out 66 batters. And she threw her second career no-hitter last week in a 6-0 victory over Santa Ana Valley. Hinkle was one walk away from a perfect game.

"She learned to master her pitches, locate them," Salcido said. "She's able to throw off-speed pitches on three-and-two counts. Nobody does that, but she does that ... We're to the point where we can throw that change-up on any count."

Hinkle said she's worked on that change-up this year, adding a curve to it. She's now a composed pitcher, instead of a scared freshman.

"It's supposed to curve out, away from the batter and drop out of the strike zone." Hinkle said of her new pitch. "I've been able to put more movement on the ball, which is good. It doesn't have to be a strike, it just has to look like one."

Hinkle also has had success at the plate, hitting .375 with four doubles, though the average is just seventh among the Eagles' regulars this year. Despite losing top hitter Rachelle Reynolds to graduation, the 2014 Eagles can mash, with sophomore Maya Van Den Heever leading the way with a .548 average.

Another top hitter is a basketball player like Van Den Heever. It's Hinkle's battery-mate of three years, senior catcher Bryanna Vernon, who said she considers basketball her top sport but also has enjoyed catching Hinkle behind the plate.

"We're always working together, so it's good to have a good relationship between us," Vernon said. "[Hinkle's pitching] has gotten a lot better. Her pitches were good, but they weren't as accurate. She's gotten better at hitting her spots. She's been working really hard on it, so it's gotten a lot better."

Hinkle has shown the improvement since deciding at the age of 12 that she wanted to play softball. Her mother, Karrie, enrolled her in a recreational league. Karrie also wanted her daughter to go to Estancia because of the school's drama program.

There was no drama when the Eagles needed a pitcher. Kelly Hinkle decided to go for it. Now she said she can't imagine giving up softball. She might play club or intramural softball at UC Davis, where she plans to major in nutrition.

"I decided that it would be cool to try a new position," she said. "In the outfield, sometimes it's pretty boring. You might not get any action. [As] the pitcher, you're in every play."