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Eye of the Dragon

Litchfield's Jasmin Estrada readies before stepping into the batters box during a May 16 game against Watertown-Mayer at Litchfield High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune1 / 4
Litchfield's Jasmin Estrada (17) celebrates with her teammates after hitting a home run May 16 against Watertown-Mayer at Litchfield High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune2 / 4
Litchfield's Jasmin Estrada hit a home run in a May 16 game against Watertown-Mayer at Litchfield High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune3 / 4
Litchfield's Jasmin Estrada cheers on her teammate from first base after walking May 16 against Watertown-Mayer at Litchfield High School. Jake Schultz / Tribune4 / 4

Jasmin Estrada stares at her bat before stepping into the batter's box. She glares at it. It's like she's intimidating it, telling it to do as she demands. She steps into the box, one foot at a time, with the bat hovering just above her left shoulder, the way it has tens of thousands of times in the batting cage.

Now, it's the pitcher's turn for the staredown.

Estrada's older brother, Eddie, calls it her killer mentality.

"As corny as it is, she has the eye of the tiger," Eddie Estrada said.

An intimidating stare can only go so far without something to back it up. As scores of pitchers have come to find out over the last four years, though, Jasmin Estrada has the bat to back it up.

In her 80-game career, Estrada has hit 29 home runs and 118 hits for a career batting average of .485 and a .586 on-base percentage. Her career home run total is the third-most in Minnesota State High School League history, just four off of second place. She has also driven in 104 runs while scoring 96 of her own.

There are times when the staredown proves to be too much for the opposing pitcher, though. She has 57 walks to her credit, including 18 this year alone.

"I get frustrated with walking," said Estrada, who leads the Dragons in a Section 5AA elimination game against Glencoe-Silver Lake at 4 p.m. today in Rockford.

"I like the challenge of hitting and getting walked takes the bat out of my hand," she said. "It was a little frustrating earlier in the year because I started going outside my zone but now I'm getting more comfortable at staying in the zone. If they stay out of my zone, I'll take the base but if they come in then I'll make them pay."

Modern day sabermetricians fawn over players that walk as often as Estrada but when you have a player with 48.3 percent of her hits going for more than a single and a career slugging percentage of .979, getting walked is understandably frustrating.

Stats aside, Estrada looks like a softball player. Her power is visible as soon as she picks up a bat. In many ways, she carries herself like her older brother, Eddie, a fact he openly acknowledges.

"She definitely has my power," said Eddie, now an outfielder for the University of Minnesota. "She's me, except in girl form. She also has a great arm."

Jasmin, a senior, has utilized that strong throwing arm for most of her high school career at shortstop but has excelled in a transition to first base in 2018. Litchfield head coach Luke Braaten made the move to help the offense by giving Sydney McCann a spot in the lineup.

"Jasmin is such a great athlete, I can move her anywhere," Braaten said. "Any need I have, I can put her there. Putting her at first helps us get the best bats in the lineup and she's taken it really well."

The position change improved the Dragon offense, which is something Estrada has done since she set foot on the field at Litchfield High School. Honed through countless hours at the batting cage with her father, Eduardo, and her two brothers, Estrada has become somewhat of a hitting coach for the Dragons, who posted a winning record for the first time in more than 15 years. During practices, she'll point out a hitch in a swing or a modified approach.

"My team kind of looks to me sometimes when it comes to hitting," Estrada said. " Especially as a leader on the team, I think it is up to me to just point things out because I want the best for them. We'll talk hitting and I'll just mention to get your hands through or something and when they get a hit it's pretty cool because it worked. That hit could be the game-winning hit."

Family trips to the old airplane hangar-turned batting cage in Litchfield have assured that each of the Estradas reach the Gladwellian 10,000 hours to master hitting. Jasmin didn't join the elite softball teams that travel the state or the country that feature so many top-level players. It isn't that she couldn't make the team. Instead, she found solace in spending three or four hours each day during the offseason taking cuts off the tee or with soft toss.

"The most important part of going to the cage doesn't have anything to do with technique," Eddie Estrada said. "There was one time where the three of us went to the cage as the sun was coming up and we were there all day, we literally had to put the lights on from our car when it got too dark to see. We haven't grown up with much but we have the skills to provide for ourselves and for our family. Hitting in the cages was where we learned that if we work hard enough at something we'll get what we work for."

Estrada played volleyball and hockey throughout her high school career as well, though her hockey career was cut short after an injury kept her out of most of the 2017-18 season. In fact, hockey was her favorite sport growing up. That was the case until she realized she could hit a softball more than 200 feet with relative ease.

"Playing three sports hasn't only helped physically but mentally, too," Estrada said. "Hitting home runs freshman year, I realized I loved softball and I was good at it. It's helped me get a lot stronger and get in the best shape I can. It's hard to balance, and I've been mentally drained from softball in the past so the other sports help me refocus."

There's no denying the Estradas are a baseball and softball family. Her father played baseball growing up and now with Eddie playing for the Gophers, Jasmin is carrying on that family tradition. She's signed to play for St. Cloud State University next year.

Softball and baseball are a major unifying factor for Jasmin and Eddie, who talk on a daily basis about life, hitting and the balance between the two.

"Whenever things are getting to me or I'm struggling I always go to him," Estrada said. "He always builds my confidence back up. He's helped me a lot ... It means a lot to hear from him because he's my role model. He gets what I'm going through and he knows the right thing to say."

Anybody watching a Litchfield softball game can see Eddie's influence with Jasmin's University of Minnesota batting gloves. What isn't immediately obvious, however, is her influence on him.

"She's much more mature than myself," Eddie said. "She was amazing, doing what she needed to do right away as a freshman. I give her props for being ready and making the most of things. I honestly kind of look up to her in that aspect. She's had to live up to the pressure of my high school career and she's done that."

Jasmin acknowledges feeling the pressure, whether it's from her family or from the expectations she puts on herself. Determined as ever, she says pressure is just another challenge. Nevertheless, she walks a careful line of maintaining the family legacy while crafting her own story. Eddie's high school career is stuff of legend in West Central Minnesota but Jasmin has put up one of the all-time great high school softball careers in the state of Minnesota. And yet she continues to strive for more.

In a May 16 game, Estrada stepped up to the plate, one step at a time with her bat hovering over her left shoulder. She delivered the Estrada staredown and awaited the pitch. The Watertown-Mayer pitcher left the ball up in the zone and Estrada met it, carrying the ball to right field in towering fashion. It grazed the clouds—or seemed to anyway—before it landed just a few feet on the other side of the mesh-like fence at Litchfield High School.

The ball became another data point in her illustrious career but as she rounded the bases, her face remained emotionless, not cracking a smile. She high-fived her coach at third base and met her teammates at home plate, all smiling with their team fighting for the win.

As Estrada entered the dugout though, she couldn't help but critique herself.

"That was just a pop fly," she said, still battling for perfection.

She just wanted to hit it farther.

Jake Schultz

Jake Schultz is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune, working his first job out of college. He graduated from St. John's University (CSB/SJU) in 2016 and is a baseball fanatic. You can follow him on Twitter @StJake29. 

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