Alabama softball pitcher Montana Fouts has become the face of her sport. It’s part of the price of being the best player on one of the top teams. LeBron James. Tom Brady. Mike Trout. Montana Fouts.

Fouts is no secret to softball insiders. But celebrated her arrival to a national audience with a perfect game against UCLA on her 21st birthday: 21st birthday, 21 batters up, 21 batters back to the dugout. It was the fifth perfect game in College World Series softball history. Fouts moved to 27-3 on the season with the perfecto. Her ERA dropped to 1.43.

Tonight, Fouts will get the ball again and try to pitch Alabama into the best-of-3 championship series. It’s a must-win game for the Tide. Which is good. Because that’s just about all Fouts has done.

Where did she come from, this hard-throwing, pitch-spinning 6-1 righty, who has struck out double-digit totals of batters the last 9 times on the mound, firing her way through the SEC and NCAA Tournaments? Long before she was “Bama Montana,” she was a 6th-grader playing varsity softball in tiny Grayson, Kentucky.

Becoming Montana

Grayson is a town of around 4,000 people in northeastern Kentucky, not far from West Virginia or Ohio. Lexington and the University of Kentucky are 100 miles to the southwest. Before Montana, Grayson was probably best known for either the area’s local waterways or for being the home of chef Jason Smith, who won a reality TV cooking show.

Then, it was home to one of the youngest high school athletes ever. Coach Derek Calhoun recalls that under the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s rules of the time, 6th graders could play varsity sports. And thus, East Carter Middle School pitcher Montana Fouts became East Carter High School pitcher Montana Fouts.

“I didn’t know a lot about her,” Calhoun told SDS. “You could tell there was something special about her. She was out there 6-7 days a week. If she wasn’t pitching 7 days a week, she was taking a couple of days off to hit. You could tell something big was on the horizon for her.”

As a 6th grader, Montana didn’t see a ton of pitching time with the varsity. Her velocity hadn’t yet arrived, but Calhoun remembers, “Nerves didn’t get to her pitching against kids that were 5, 6, 7 years older than her. … She didn’t get rattled easy.”

Montana became a full-time varsity player in her 7th-grade year. But the following year, Fouts grew a couple of inches, got stronger and began the climb toward eventually throwing around 70 miles per hour by the time she finished at East Carter. “Her 8th-grade year was when she took a big step up, and took that role as our No. 1 pitcher,” Calhoun said.

Stats certainly bear this out. That 8th-grade season? Fouts allowed 3 earned runs. In 127 1/3 innings pitched. Again, as an 8th-grader, she was 17-3 with an 0.16 ERA.

It really wasn’t fair after that.

She was a 4-time high school All-American. As a senior, she was the national player of the year. She was Kentucky’s player of the year 3 times.

Fouts rewrote the Kentucky softball record book on a day-to-day basis. Wins? 148 of those, a state record. Consecutive wins? As a sophomore, Fouts won 27 consecutive games. She broke that mark winning 32 in a row as a senior. Her 108 shutouts are 2nd all-time. Her career ERA of 0.32 in 2nd all-time — and it includes innings from 6th, 7th and 8th grades. (Her Alabama bio doesn’t include those early years and gives her credit for posting the state’s lowest ERA at 0.16.) As a senior, Fouts’s ERA was 0.09. That’s 3 earned runs allowed in 232 1/3 innings.

She threw 14 no-hitters in a season. Either 17 or 23 perfect games in her high school career, depending on how you count. Want strikeouts? She had plenty of those, too: 1,964 (against only 88 career walks). But while stat-trackers struggled to keep up, Montana was moving on.

Moving on

There was never a question about Montana’s priorities. “She didn’t have the age of my junior or senior players, but her maturity level was so much higher as an 8th-grader,” recalls Calhoun. “You don’t see a lot of that.”

That maturity led to some very clear goals.

“That was always the goal of hers, to go pitch college softball,” Calhoun said. “She was determined to be the best player she could be, every day of the week.”

It was on Halloween of her freshman year of East Carter that Fouts decided she wanted to go to Alabama. She is generally cited as the youngest player the Tide had ever offered. For many players, making such an early decision could have been a disaster. Think of the numerous football players who have changed commitments like socks.

Was there any concern from those around her that Fouts might have jumped the gun?

Not for Calhoun.

“I knew she really liked Coach (Patrick) Murphy, and I know she was pretty set once she got on the campus, and she really enjoyed the atmosphere there in Tuscaloosa,” he said. “She knew that no matter where she chose, it would be a hard program to go to, because of the level of competition.”

Suffice it to say that Montana has met (and exceeded) that level. Her time in Tuscaloosa hasn’t been that much different than it was in Grayson.

After an impressive freshman campaign and a COVID-shortened sophomore year, Fouts has dominated even the SEC. The 27-3 record is impressive, and so is the 1.43 ERA. But the 344 strikeouts in 210 2/3 innings pitched might be the best indicator of her just genuine dominance on the mound.

How good is Montana? Ask vanquished Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson, whose Wildcats were knocked out by Montana and the Tide in the NCAA Tournament.

“The thing about her that makes her so special is she is an incredibly hard worker and she’s very humble,” Lawson told the media about Fouts. “She’s just an outstanding player. She’s great for the sport of softball.”

Off the field

How does Montana Fouts stay grounded? Great athletes can burn out. When your goal is being the best, what do you do once you arrive? Calhoun says that two threads that keep Montana grounded are her family and her love of working with kids.

“She’s a great family person,” Calhoun said. “She’s always hanging out, going fishing with her dad, and being with her brother and sisters.”

Indeed, her dad, Tim Fouts, has been with her every step of the way. He was Montana’s middle school coach and at the high school level, he worked as the pitching coach, with Calhoun saying that he mostly stuck to hitting instruction.

Meanwhile, Montana is certainly not unaware of her standing either in the local community or among young girls who also dream of being the next great pitcher.

“She’s willing to give back to her community,” Calhoun said. “I’ve got a couple of girls right now playing for us that Montana helped when they were younger with pitching lessons. Kids love being around her and she’s a great role model.”

She’s also a proud “dog Mom” as she puts it in her Instagram profile. You won’t have to look far for photos of her with her four-legged friend, Dixie. Sometimes, she almost looks like just another college girl. A clever disguise.

What’s next?

Given the loss of the 2020 season to COVID, Fouts could have plenty of time left at Alabama. Which is kind of daunting for somebody who has already dominated the sport. What’s next? What’s the limit of greatness?

“Every year I watch that kid, she gets better,” Calhoun said, breaking into laughter. “I don’t know what the sky is. With her work ethic and determination to get better, she’ll find ways to get better, and she’ll get stronger, and she’ll get better on that mound. Which is probably not good for a lot of teams.”

Maybe the next field to conquer could be the batter’s box?

Calhoun’s standout memory of Fouts wasn’t of her pitching, it was a blast she hit in a regional semifinal for his team. Yes, hit.

“She probably hit a ball 300+ feet. It was the longest, hardest ball I’ve ever seen hit,” Calhoun recalls. “When that pops up on my Facebook feed, I send it to her and remind her about that.”

Maybe the final stage of being Montana could be reverting to two-way stardom like the old days back in Grayson? Well, probably not. She hasn’t batted at Alabama. But who would bet against it?