It’s been a whirlwind year — or perhaps windmill year — for Hailey Unger.
The 19-year-old Oak Park High School graduate and softball player just finished her freshman year at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., leading her team in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage as well as earning All-Great Plains Athletic Conference First Team accolades.
In August, Unger — a catcher — will represent Manitoba at the 2013 Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke, Que. and this week she’s playing for Canada in the ISF Junior Women’s World Championship in Brampton, Ont.
She’s a softball sensation, but like all good Canadian athletes, Unger is quick to credit others.
"I’ve been on Haylee O’Neill’s (head coach of the Manitoba team headed to the Summer Games) team for the past couple years and I’ve never had a coach that’s been so extremely dedicated to learning everything she can about every single position," Unger says.
"Sometimes it’s hard as a catcher because most coaches I’ve had are infielders or outfielders, and they don’t have all the information. Haylee goes up and beyond, going to seminars and getting people to come in and give us clinics."
Unger, who is studying early childhood education at Dakota Wesleyan, says O’Neill has been instrumental in not just raising her game, but her confidence.
"She’s just taught me to have faith in myself," Unger says, who started playing ball 11 years ago and hopes to one day be an All-American and represent Canada at the senior level.
"I’ve always had some athletic ability but I’ve also always been the kid who would say ‘There’s somebody better. I’m not the best.’ She taught me to have faith in what I can do, because she saw something in me."
O’Neill says coaching Unger is easy because she’s got a lot to work with.
"She’s really strong, a tremendous leader, wonderful catcher, she has an amazing arm and she’s a consistent power hitter, which is rare among power hitters," O’Neill, 30, says.
O’Neill is in her second year coaching the junior women’s provincial team and played for Simon Fraser University.
"Off the field, she does what’s needed to succeed at the next level. She looks after herself and is really responsible for her age," O’Neill says.
Unger’s mother Wendy can attest to her daughter’s level of commitment. She says Hailey is very competitive, focused and organized.
"She’s not happy when she makes mistakes and has high expectations of herself," Wendy Unger says.
"She always tries to improve and she never complains about going to practice or working out. The expectation of maintaining your fitness has increased as she’s got older, and in her university ball there’s a real expectation to train. It’s intense, but I think she really loves it."
Unger, who also credits camps with retired catcher and two-time Olympian Erin Cumpstone for her success, says her sporting folks (her father Bob played in the Western Hockey League) have supported her every step of the way.
"I can’t remember my parents ever missing a game growing up," Unger says. "Whatever the conditions were, they always managed to make it."