Valerie Cagle might have sneaked up on some, but the Clemson two-way softball star has left the ACC and now the country with no doubt of the talent she has on the diamond.
The journey to leading a second-year program into the top 25 began a lot differently than most, and on the outside, joining a new program could be a headscratcher, but not when the head coach is John Rittman, Cagle said.
"The big thing with Clemson was, it's hard to pass up on an opportunity to be a part of something like this," Cagle said. "The culture that Coach Rittman talks about wanting to create, and what we have created, it's just something that you know is going to be so special. So getting that opportunity when not a lot of people get that opportunity, it's hard to pass up on."
For Rittman and his staff, Cagle was a no-brainer, and the recruitment process began in 2018 well before the program scheduled its first competitive matchup. She had to enroll in 2019 with the fact that she wouldn't play a game until 2020, but that never stopped her from picking the Tigers.
Cagle, who was homeschooled and only played travel softball season before enrolling at Clemson, produced mind-boggling numbers. She hit the softball at a .525 clip while also earning a 0.00 earned run average in the circle, with 80 total strikeouts over 57 innings.
"We knew (her potential) when we recruited her," Rittman said. "When you're in the business of recruiting and coaching, you don't overlook talent too often. So the first time that coach (Kyle) Jamieson and I saw Valerie play, we knew she was going to be special, and we just had to talk her into coming to Clemson. So that was the first challenge.
"But even last year, although the year was cut short, Valerie was doing a lot of really good things, and I think that experience has definitely helped her for this year. She's matured a lot."
While NCAA winter and spring sports shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Rittman's team looked at the season's cancellation with a glass-half-full mindset. Already having proven their ability in a short inaugural season, confidence for players like Cagle and USC Upstate transfer shortstop Ansley Gilstrap went through the roof with a clear direction and a little dirt under their cleats for 27 games.
"(Cagle) mows them down and makes my job pretty easy, you know," Gilstrap said. "Got to stay on your toes sometimes, though, because then there's that one occasion she doesn't strike everyone out, so you've got to be ready.
"So she's great; it gives you lots of confidence when she's been so successful. And then with her hitting, too, definitely she gives herself the run support. Sometimes when our hitting's not always right there where it needs to be, she doesn't ever let that discourage her. She'll go out and help herself."
With multiple offers elsewhere within the ACC and her home state of Virginia, Cagle had options but has now seen her early investment into Rittman and Clemson pay off as the team prepares for the last stretch of the regular season.
"Yeah, I looked, and there were some other ACC schools. And you know some Virginia schools, but there's something about Clemson that was different," Cagle said. "I remember on my unofficial (visit), taking a picture in the open field that was now where the field is. So it's crazy, but having somebody like Coach Rittman and the coaching staff he's put together and the talent that he's been able to recruit.
"(The success) is not something that's very surprising for us because we see what we can do on a daily basis and in scrimmages, so it's definitely something that it's nice to see that we're now getting the recognition, but it's not surprising to us internally."
Preparing to play rival South Carolina for the first time in program history on Wednesday, Cagle currently sits 13th in the ACC in ERA at 2.19 with the fourth-most innings pitched in the conference. As her teammate Gilstrap alluded to, Cagle has been no slouch in the batter's box averaging .376 and is fifth in the conference's slugging percentage at .753 ahead of the one-off matchup in Columbia against head coach Beverly Smith's Gamecocks.
"I've never actually been a part of a rivalry game," Cagle said. "You know, being homeschooled, I didn't have that opportunity and then travel ball; you don't really get a part of that, so I'm just excited to see what a rivalry game is like."