For love of the game
Though darkness has fallen upon Springfield, Ill., this final Wednesday evening in March, the lights shine brightly inside Buck Fastpitch Academy—a new softball and baseball instruction academy on the capital city’s western edge.
“Keep that front leg straight,” Kristina “Tina” Buck, ’13 LAS, tells her newest pupil, a local eighth grader named Kayla. Buck then demonstrates how the young athlete can keep her weight back and generate added power behind her pitch. Kayla, who arrived at her first lesson today with no previous pitching experience, mimics her instructor’s movements. She asks for clarification and nods when she understands Buck’s precise directions.
As Kayla begins her windup, Buck studies the young hurler’s movement: the arm circle, the step, the wrist snap and the release. Kayla’s pitch whizzes toward the plate with added zip—a 10-mile-per-hour jump, by Buck’s educated estimation.
“That’s it,” Buck says, encouraging Kayla, who responds with a smile. “It’s these little adjustments that lead to improved outcomes.”
At 9:30 p.m., a trio of private pitching lessons in her wake, Buck finally turns out the lights at her namesake facility, locks the door and gets into her car.
“That girl blew me away,” Buck says of Kayla as she drives toward her Springfield home. “She mastered every single pitching drill within 5-10 reps. To have a kid so receptive to learning and consistently open to trying new things—that’s what I love about coaching.”
Buck’s 30-minute lesson with Kayla, an experience rich in the purity and joy of the sport, confirms the entrepreneur’s ambitious decision to launch the Buck Fastpitch Academy in November 2015.
“When the light bulb goes off for these girls and their bodies do what their minds are telling them to do, that’s a special moment,” 25-year-old Buck says. “That look of accomplishment, of focusing on a task and achieving it, is one of the truly wonderful things about sports.”
Filling a void
When Buck arrived at UIS as a freshman in 2009, she immediately began giving private pitching lessons to a handful of local youth. Year after year, the St. Louis native’s client roster swelled, eventually reaching about 40 regular students.
“There was such a need and demand, but a real lack of instructors in the area—it was a stark contrast from what I had experienced in St. Louis, where players could learn from any number of highly qualified coaches at any time,” says Buck, who savored the guidance of revered softball coach Jim Greiner during her own playing days.
After graduating from UIS in 2013 with a degree in communications, Buck remained in town and began her professional career as a communications strategist for the Illinois Senate Republican Press Staff. She continues in that role today, handling public relations, outreach and social media for three suburban Chicago legislators. Before her March 30th lesson with Kayla, for instance, Buck penned a speech for an upcoming historic preservation press conference, created a PowerPoint presentation for an educational forum, and updated web content and social media posts for her designated senators.
It’s spirited work that Buck, who has a naturally dynamic and lively personality, loves. But it’s softball, she confesses, that commands her heart.
Buck’s softball roots were planted as a three-year-old when her father, Dan Buck, placed her on a local tee-ball team. “Kids had to be five years old, but somehow, someway, he convinced someone to let me play,” she says.
Buck played baseball until age 10 before switching over to softball. In the subsequent 15 years, softball has been fixed into her daily existence—practices, games and tournaments that led her around the country and eventually helped her land an athletic scholarship at UIS.
A pitcher and outfielder, Buck was a three-time Academic All-American for the Prairie Stars and a key cog in the program’s maiden voyage into the NCAA Division II National Tournament in 2012. “That was a magical season because we were all so connected,” Buck says of the record-setting squad.
When her playing career ended in 2013, Buck couldn’t abandon the game. She continued offering private pitching lessons out of a residential garage in Springfield.
Last spring, the owners of Springfield’s Bradfordton Athletic Center contacted Buck with a business proposition. The center was already hosting girls’ volleyball, but management envisioned a more comprehensive sports complex for female athletes and wanted Buck’s lessons on their property. If she agreed to lease their 2,200-square-foot pole barn and invest in its sport-specific necessities—such as turf, netting and equipment—the owners pledged to provide the necessary structural improvements, including walls, insulation and HVAC.
Although enthralled by the opportunity, Buck admits that she questioned her ability to handle such a daring entrepreneurial venture. She already had a demanding career and had just purchased her first home. But as Buck consulted others—students, parents and former teammates among them—her concerns evaporated.
“The more I saw the excitement others had for this idea, the more I believed I had to take advantage of this opportunity,” she says.
Buck’s hard-charging ways didn’t surprise former UIS teammate Mallory Beck, ’14 LAS. “Tina has a passion for the game beyond anyone else I’ve ever met, and when you combine that with her work ethic, you just knew she was going to find a way to get this done,” says Beck, adding that Buck had talked about starting a softball training facility in Springfield as early as her sophomore year at UIS.
Ultimately, Buck invested nearly $40,000 in the project, digging deep into her savings to make the Buck Fastpitch Academy a reality. “There’s a common cause here, and that’s to put central Illinois on the softball map with competitive teams and players,” the young entrepreneur asserts.
Historically, Buck adds, local teams have been overmatched when battling squads from the St. Louis and Chicago areas or the South. With her facility’s batting cages and pitching tunnels as well as its cadre of experienced instructors, she believes Buck Fastpitch Academy can provide players with a year-round spot to sharpen their skills and gain critical reps.
“With our girls getting some of the same opportunities, we’re going to see change,” Buck says.
Chasing on-field success
Buck Fastpitch Academy offers private instruction as well as semi-private lessons and clinics, drawing players and teams from cities and towns across central Illinois. In addition to pitching, it teaches catching, hitting, fielding, strength and speed training, led by many of Buck’s former UIS teammates—including Beck, Sarah Gray, ’13 LAS; Jaylyn Craven, ’11 LAS; Samantha Riss, ’14 LAS; and current UIS standout Cheyanne Bowman.
Buck Fastpitch Academy has allowed Buck to maintain ties to the game she loves—it has afforded her former teammates that same gift. Beck, for instance, has been on staff since its debut, providing hitting instruction and co-hosting clinics with Buck. Beck says passing on her softball knowledge to the Academy’s younger athletes has fueled a deeper passion for the game.
“There is no better feeling in the world than opening The State Journal-Register and seeing that my students got multiple hits or home runs in their games the night before,” Beck says. “It makes long workdays and nights worth it.”
Buck herself teaches pitching 3-4 days each week, mainly on evenings and weekends. She concentrates on mechanics and balance, deconstructing the softball pitching process—a rather unnatural motion, given its underhanded release—in a diligent series of warm-up drills, requiring that students perfect each of the individual components, from the windup to the release, before proceeding.
“For the body to work in unison, everything needs to work individually,” explains Buck, who also champions mental focus, believing that strong willpower helps pitchers overcome adversity on the mound.
“I talk a lot about letting go of pitches and moving on because if you take this game too seriously or get emotional, pitching becomes that much harder. This game is full of failures, but you can’t dwell on them. You have to embrace the successes.”
Kris Lauher’s daughter Sydney has been a Buck protégée for the last five years. The UIS alumna’s calm and relaxed demeanor has encouraged the high school sophomore to experiment with her pitches, Lauher says, and has helped the young pitcher to add a screwball, drop curve and rise ball to her on-the-mound arsenal.
“These are things you can’t just get out of a book or by watching a video,” says Lauher, who coaches a central Illinois-based youth travel team with a pitching staff composed largely of Buck’s disciples.
Another Springfield-area parent, Bill Marriott, ’95 CBM, praises Buck’s long-term philosophy and holistic approach to the game. His two daughters, 14-year-old Anna and 11-year-old Molly, are both Buck Fastpitch Academy regulars who have made steady improvement, thanks to Buck’s composed and discerning instruction.
“It’s hard to find someone who can address something so mechanically complex, but Tina always takes it step-by-step and keeps it fun and low pressure,” Marriott says. “It’s something that’s so needed in this market where there are so many girls who want to learn and advance their games.”
Although still in its infancy, the Buck Fastpitch Academy is generating results. Every week, Buck hears successful reports from athletes, many of whom are later featured on the facility’s Facebook page, while a number of her older pupils are attracting interest from college programs.
“We’ll have girls come straight from a game to their lesson, and they’re excited to talk about how many strikeouts they had or how their team beat a rival,” Buck says. “That enthusiasm drives me.” The Buck Fastpitch Academy now claims about 200 clients—explosive growth that has Buck already contemplating expansion, though she doesn’t know where or how.
“I simply don’t have enough room to accommodate the demand, but we’ll see where the roads lead,” says Buck, who confesses that she would love to see Springfield someday build a dome capable of holding tournaments, games and year-round play. “That’s something I’d love to be a part of,” she says.
Beyond the game
For all of Buck Fastpitch Academy’s focus on pitching mechanics or hitting prowess, Buck understands there’s a bigger picture. She considers youth sports a powerful force in childhood development, and thinks athletics can teach such important life skills as self-discipline, perseverance and teamwork.
One of her first Springfield-area pitching students recently called to say she had graduated from college and landed a much-sought-after job. The student thanked Buck for her consistent encouragement and relayed just how many life skills softball delivered.
“Those moments help you realize that there’s so much more to the game than the final score,” Buck says. “We’re building skills for a lifetime.” It’s a philosophy reflected in the Buck Fastpitch Academy’s motto—“Train. Play. Achieve.”—which represents Buck’s dual focus on body and mind.
“Our athletes are training with some of the area’s best instructors, who bring energy and fun into lessons and are committed to helping athletes earn success,” Buck says. “Under it all, though, we preach that the game is supposed to be fun, not a job.”
To that end, Buck has begun implementing the six-week Baseball And Softball Education Foundation curriculum at Buck Fastpitch Academy. A nonprofit established by Buck and her father in 2006, BASE curriculum teaches respect, love and passion for the game in an effort to develop leadership and camaraderie that transcends the ball field.
“It’s about helping kids with the mental and emotional side of the game, which then translates to life,” Buck says of the Foundation, which has graduated dozens of teams from its program in the St. Louis area. Buck herself has always appreciated softball’s multifaceted nature as well as the game’s emphasis on physical and mental tools. Long ago, she embraced that com-plexity rather than run from it—today, she’s encouraging the next generation of athletes to do the same at the Buck Fastpitch Academy.
“When one part of your game is suffering, you always have an opportunity to impact the game in other areas,” Buck says. “There are so many ways to contribute. That’s something I’m always stressing, and it’s a beautiful thing when the athletes realize all that they can accomplish.”