WALLA WALLA - There was a moment at the Washington Class 4A state softball tournament when everyone around the field held their breath.
Wa-Hi pitcher Alyson Ambler was in a bases-loaded situation, with two outs, one ball and two strikes, and the Blue Devils up 1-0.
"That's a lot of pressure on that little girl," an official scorekeeper said, indicating Ambler, then Wa-Hi's junior pitcher, as she inhaled for another pitch.
A slip and Marysville-Pilchuck hit could tie it - or worse, send two runners home for the state championship in the Spokane tournament.
But the 5-foot-8 girl in the circle proved her mettle, backing up her earlier solo home run to sit down the final batter for the win, while fans in blue went wild.
Soon, the cool-headed pitcher had another award to her name: 2011 Gatorade Washington Softball Player of the Year.
The only problem is, she's not in Washington at the moment.
No, Ambler, who will begin her senior year at Wa-Hi this autumn, is spending the greater part of her summer - and weekends in the fall and winter - playing softball with the American Pastime Gold select team in Orange County, Calif.
But that doesn't mean Ambler doesn't appreciate the award, which labels her one of the top 50 softball players in the country.
"When I was younger, I always saw girls getting awards like this, and I thought it would be so cool if I got one," Ambler said. "And now it's actually come true. It's more of a shock. I've dreamed of it and now it's come."
But it hasn't come without some work.
Ambler - who combined with 2011 graduate and 2010 Washington Gatorade Softball Player of the Year honoree Hope Klicker in the circle to pitch the Blue Devils to the program's first state championship and a total shutout of all opponents at the tournament - practices pitching, fielding and batting five days a week for 2.5 hours at a time. The hours of work are consistent throughout the year, she said.
She played summer ball for a Portland team last year and will spend 12 days in California and four days home through the summer, then traveling for tournaments and showcases during the school year until Blue Devil play begins again in the spring.
"It's a lot of work, but it's worth it," she said from California of the travel and practice time. "Softball is a big part of my life, and imagining a summer without it is unbelievable. It's my normal life to be doing softball every day of the week."
Ambler, a right-handed pitcher and first baseman, had a 15-0 record in 2011 school play. She had a 0.57 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 98 innings pitched and was the Columbia Basin Big Nine 4A MVP, batting .506 with nine home runs - including three in the state tournament - 36 runs scored and 34 RBI. Those statistics, coupled with her academic mettle - she carries a 3.78 GPA - and volunteer activities helped her notch the award.
The work, club teams and Gatorade award will help Ambler secure a place in college softball, she said.
"There's not a lot of down time, but it will all be worth it," she said.
Although not sure of the where, Ambler is certain she will continue her softball career in college.
"I'm keeping my options open," she said. "I want to see what they are, and I'll make a decision about that later this summer."
Now, state champions and as the second Blue Devil in a row selected for the Gatorade award, Ambler hopes the East side starts seeing some respect.
"It shows the state of Washington that girls from the other side of the mountains can play," she said. "They always think the better teams are on the West side, but we can still play."
And with two Gatorade winners, Wa-Hi softball coach Jerry Humphreys is pleased - and he's proud of the whole team.
"We appreciate having some great athletes and great individuals on our field," Humphreys said. "Our objective is, given our collective talent, to work on the right things at the right time. It's worked out so far and it's been very fun to have Alyson and Hope and several other talented kids on the team this year."
A bubbly and fun presence on the team, Humphreys says Ambler knows what she wants, and can clamp down on her control when necessary, as it was at state.
"She's very focused on what she wants to accomplish," he said. "There are two sides to that. She's a talented individual athlete and she's always working hard to be as good as she can be, but also, especially this year, she's matured into a great team leader. She's focused on those around her and how she can make the team more successful."
It is that drive, as well as Ambler's athletic statistics and quality of character, that makes the award well-deserved, Humphreys said.
"Her stats were great, there's no arguing with that," he said. "And her impact with the team is undeniable. ... Beyond that, her character aspect, she's focused on her teammates and wanted to make it a great year for the seniors. She's a great student, very involved in different clubs and volunteer activities, and she's always out working on clinics with the younger kids.
"She's a great all-around individual."
Previous national Gatorade Athlete of the Year winners include Lisa Leslie, LeBron James, Alex Rodriguez and current Washington Huskies softball player Tia Bollinger, as well as a host of other professional and Olympic athletes.
A selection committee will determine the national winner from the state winners, with the selection for the national winner for each sport released later this summer.
The selection process is administered by ESPN RISE and the Gatorade high school sports leadership team, which works with sport-specific experts and a media advisory board to determine the state winners.
For now, Ambler is focused - not surprisingly - on softball.
"I love it!" she said of California and the summer team. "I love the sunshine, I love everyone on the team. We all click."
Ambler will spend most of the summer living out of hotel rooms or the homes of coaches and teammates, but she'll also notch many miles for games and showcases across the Golden State and in Colorado.
The summer culminates in August at nationals.
"I'm looking forward to nationals," she said. "I really think we have a shot at it and it will be fun to see what we can do there."
But this is one tournament the busy girl won't have to travel far for.
Nationals is the first weekend of August at Huntington Beach - which is in Orange County, just a short drive away.