She doesn’t remember the first softball game she ever played, but Fairhope’s Farish Beard remembers how she started down the path that has led to her becoming one of the top collegiate pitchers in the country.

“I remember Dr. Dan Matthews, he actually put a softball in my hand (in Fairhope Rec League play) and said that I was going to be the pitcher,” said Beard, now a senior All-Sun Belt Conference pitcher for South Alabama. “He told me that I was going to start pitching and I never put it down. As funny as this is, I actually played first base and shortstop; I would never play those now.”

No one would ask Beard to play anything but pitcher these days. For good reason. The former Mobile-area Player of the Year at Fairhope High School has taken her game and her competitiveness to the college level, and the next step may be as a professional player. Last season with the Jaguars, she was Top 10 in NCAA rankings in hits allowed per seven innings, earned run average and strikeouts per seven innings. The right-hander with the fast-moving rise-ball pitch led the Sun Belt in five categories.

She may take her game to the professional level after this season. But that’s getting ahead of her story. Right now, Beard is concentrating on her final season at South Alabama, one she believes could be special for her and her Jags’ teammates. And she’s eager for her next chance to pitch, her next chance to compete.

“I have always loved the game and I’m a big competitor, and with pitching there’s more of that competition — you get to challenge someone every time you throw the ball,” Beard said. “I think that’s why I’ve stuck with it for so long. I don’t want anybody to beat me. I just want that challenge … I think that competitiveness is a big part of me. Coach (Becky Clark) has preached that since the start of the year; her big word has been compete. I think that’s what we’ve done all year, is we’ve competed. That’s the fun part of this game.

“Every time I get on the mound, I know there’s no one that’s going to beat me, and if they beat me, then they’re not going to beat me again. I just love that mindset and going after people, just being able to have the opportunity to go out and compete is a really good feeling. This (approaching conference, national tournaments) is where the fun starts, that’s for sure.”

Clark, who has built South Alabama from its first season to its current status as a Top 25 program, said Beard’s development has been a pleasure to watch, if not a bit surprising.

“I would be lying if I said I knew she would have the kind of national success she has had when we first recruited her,” Clark said. “She had a lot of work to do to become an elite pitcher but I can honestly say she has earned every bit of her success. For young pitchers out there I think she is a great example of where work ethic and grit will get you.”

Yep, there’s that competitive thing again.

“One of Farish’s biggest attributes is her mentality; she has the will to compete,” Clark said. “She wants the ball in tough situations. She wants the ball when there is pressure. She understands that the pressure situations are what make this game fun. I think in addition to that she is willing to put in the work behind the scenes in order to prepare for those moments.”

The Jags will play at Southern Miss April 22 before playing a three-game, two-day homestand this weekend against North Dakota State. A three-game Sun Belt series at Troy May 2-3 will end the regular season, followed by the Sun Belt tournament at Texas State May 6-9. With some more success, the Jags will receive a fourth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Among the team’s leaders, as she has been almost since arriving on the South Alabama campus, is Beard.

She was selected among the top 50 players in the country heading into this season and is among 10 finalists for the NCAA’s Senior CLASS Award, presented to the senior player who best represents a combination of community involvement, character, classroom excellence and competition. Fans can vote for their favorite player at www.seniorCLASSaward.com. Beard said being mentioned for such awards is nice but added she believes her position on such lists is a result of the play of her teammates.

The best thing that could happen this season, she noted, was for the Jags to reach the College World Series, an accomplishment that hasn’t yet been realized by the Jags.

“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here, because it’s local and I wanted to help start up something and create a tradition for something instead of going somewhere where there’s already tradition,” Beard said. “I wanted to be part of the teams that helped develop how the program will be looked at in the future. It’s been amazing, especially the atmosphere we have here. We’re a family. [Reaching the College World Series] would be a dream come true. I don’t even know how to put it in words what it would feel like. But I do think we have a team playing here now, we’re pretty strong, and if we keep playing, competing, going after people — we have a lot of heart.”

Helping lead the Jags’ charge will be Farish Beard.

“With all of our players, it is great to be able to watch their growth over the four years that they are in our program,” Clark said. “I think that is the one thing I am most proud of for Farish. Yes, she has won awards and had recognition, but at the end of the day she has done it the right way. To see her grow into the person she has become is the best part. She is going to be able to walk away from her career at South Alabama knowing she moved our program forward and left it all on the field for her team.”