Baseball

Friends since age 5, FIU softball stars Leon and Texeira are used to breaking records

Florida International University softball stars Stephanie Texeira, left, and Ashley Leon are friends since age 5.
Florida International University softball stars Stephanie Texeira, left, and Ashley Leon are friends since age 5. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

There are times when Florida International University first baseman Stephanie Texeira looks to her right, sees second baseman Ashley Leon, and has an immediate thought.

“Flashbacks,” she said.

Leon and Texeira, who have known each other since they were 5 years old, are two of FIU’s biggest softball standouts on a team that had a 17-game win streak snapped last week and has emerged as an NCAA Tournament contender with a 31-8 record.

Texeira is FIU’s career leader in numerous categories, breaking the home-run record earlier this season, and Leon is working on her third straight season with a batting average north of .350.

In high school at Gulliver Prep, the girls teamed up to win four consecutive softball state titles, from 2010 to 2013, and each earned college scholarships.

Leon, who wanted to go away for college, signed with Auburn, which has made the NCAA Tournament 12 times in the past 15 years. Texeira signed with FIU, which has far less tradition, making the tournament just twice, in 2003 and 2010.

However, after playing 26 games at Auburn, Leon required back surgery.

“Over time, my vertebrae just cracked,” Leon said. “They put six screws in my back.”

After back surgery, Leon said, she lost her spot at Auburn.

When she heard that Gator Rebhan — who had coached her since she was 12 years old with the Stingrays travel-ball program — had been hired at FIU in time for the 2015 season, she transferred back home.

Three weeks after being cleared to play following back surgery, Leon suffered a broken bone in her left wrist. An opposing player slid into her glove while Leon tried to make a play at second base, causing the injury.

“Ashley’s body is hanging together by a thread,” Rebhan joked.

Leon said road games in cold-weather cities give her the most issues because her back tends to stiffen and it’s a constant battle to stay loose.

Still, she’s having a stellar career. She hit .358 as a sophomore and .409 as a junior, becoming just the sixth FIU player to hit higher than .400. This year, she is third on the team in hitting (.350) and is a perfect 11-for-11 on stolen bases.

Texeira, meanwhile, has 41 career homers, an FIU record that means a lot to her.

“This is my backyard. I grew up playing at Tamiami Park, where I met Ashley,” Texeira said. “When I signed with FIU, I knew I wanted to go for records. I wanted to make sure I’m remembered.”

This season, she’s third in Conference USA in RBIs (34) and fourth in homers (nine). But because she’s so good, teams don’t pitch to her very often, walking her a league-leading 29 times.

“Her strength is incredible,” Rebhan said of Texeira, who is 5-foot-3 with a stocky and athletic build.

Texeira, a lefty hitter, often easily clears FIU’s right-field fence, which is 210 feet from home plate. She recently hit one that cleared a second fence on a drive estimated at 300 feet.

“Sometimes I’m in awe of her,” Leon said. “I’m like, ‘What the heck?’”

But as strong as Texeira is — and she can squat 330 pounds — she is also deceptively fast.

On March 19, Texeira needed every bit of her speed. She hit a long drive to right-center field and began a slow trot around the bases, thinking it was a home run.

Except it wasn’t.

The ball hit the top of the fence and caromed several yards toward the infield.

“As soon as I saw it hit the fence, I said, ‘I have to turn turbo,’ and I just hauled,” Texeira said. “I was thinking triple, and when I got to third I heard [Rebhan scream], ‘Go, go, go’, and I was thinking, ‘How?’”

Texeira slid home safely with just her second inside-the-park home run at FIU, and she was greeted by her teammates, many of whom were laughing, enjoying the moment.

That laughter has been the soundtrack of the season so far. The Panthers are putting together an impressive season, and they plan on keeping it going into May, when the playoffs begin.

The Panthers have never been to the Women’s College World Series, which is held every year in Oklahoma City. But their recent play has allowed them to dream.

“The College World Series is our goal,” Texeira said. “That’s the top of the pyramid. But first we want to win our conference tournament.”

No matter how far the Panthers advance, Texeira is thrilled she gets to enjoy her senior season playing next to Leon.

“When she came back home, I couldn’t believe it at first,” Texeira said. “But it was meant to be — her and I on the field. We started together, and we’re ending together.”

  Comments