AUBURN, Ala. -- It's not unusual to find Tiffany Howard with her nose buried in a book. After all, Auburn’s star left fielder is a stellar student who hopes to get into veterinary school when her playing career ends.
But one book she studied this summer didn't come from her science classes. It came from Volunteer Assistant Coach Casey Myers. It's title? "Mental Toughness."
Few who know Howard would say she wasn't already mentally tough. They'll tell you she's the hardest worker and the most unselfish player on the team.
But there was a missing piece in her game following her sophomore season, when she batted .277 and sometimes struggled while adjusting to the approach a new coaching staff wanted her to take.
So Howard did what she always does. She went to work.
She had to change her swing, and then learn to trust it. She credits the coaching staff, a lot of extra hours in the cages and more confidence at the plate for a breakout junior season.
"It's the mental game," said Howard. "I've always had talent, but once you get to this level, it's 90 to 100 percent mental. I think I just had to get my mental game right, especially over the summer. Going through last year, I knew something had to change mentally because I felt like that was the only thing holding me back."
Nothing, it seems, has held her back since. Howard has been one of the top leadoff hitters in the country, batting over .500 virtually all season. She's reached base safely in every game and has consistently been a key cog in an explosive Tigers offense that has helped Auburn rocket up the rankings into the Top 10. They've been as high as No. 6 and are currently No. 8.
Senior centerfielder Morgan Estell isn't surprised to see Howard putting up mind-boggling numbers.
"I think she works harder than anybody I've ever met, and it's showing from her success," said Estell. "She has a great eye, number one, and she knows how to get on base, whether it's a walk, HBP, error, hit, just whatever it takes. She's doing something right, because she's reached base every single game."
She spent the entire offseason working on slapping, working on bunting, working on every aspect of hitting that she could, and it's showing," said Estell on Howard's work ethic and unselfishnes. "You can just see the fire in her eyes when she gets up there because she's confident."
Coach Clint Myers said Howard is the kind of player every coach wants.
"It's not unusual to see her running in the outfield by herself, or throwing softballs against the screen by herself or trying to get whatever she can in to make herself a better player. She's a great teammate because she pulls for everybody around her all the time. It's more important that people around her are happy than she is happy."
As for her red-hot bat this season, Myers isn't surprised, either.
"She was probably our best hitter at the end of last season, and she had a phenomenal postseason," said Myers. "She's carried it through into this season and has been our catalyst."
The veteran coach also said his staff has worked to teach Howard the same principles all of its players learn. It's about stepping up to the plate with confidence and executing a plan.
That's something Howard has mastered.
"It's the mindset of knowing what to do and then being able to go out and do it," said Myers. "And then if it doesn't happen, being able to let it go. You can't be thinking of the past when you are trying to do the present. Having the ability to let things go has really helped [Howard]. The concepts that we were giving to her, it took a while for her to understand. Now that she understands them, it's a whole lot easier to make them happen."
Howard started playing t-ball at age 3 and played on a travel softball team from an early age. Softball was just one passion that stoked her competitive fire. She usually played up on her older sister Samantha's teams.
"I've always been competitive," Howard said. "It's because of my sister. I liked to beat her at anything.
"Both of my parents are pretty competitive, too, so I much pretty much got that gene," Howard said. "We would always compete with anything, even if it was checkers."
Howard has big goals for Auburn softball, but she's got even bigger dreams for when her playing days end. She wants to attend veterinary school, preferably at Auburn. Auburn's renowned vet school was a big reason she came to the Plains in the first place. Her first football game at Jordan-Hare Stadium caught her attention, too.
"It kind of helped that my first visit here was the first time I had ever seen a college football game," said Howard. "I really loved that atmosphere, and I loved the family atmosphere at Auburn. It is just unbelievable."
While Howard no doubt has more chapters to write in her Auburn story, she said it's been everything she hoped it would be so far.
"I came here looking for something I can tell my kids about and be proud of, and I think that's what it's been," Howard said. "I wanted to come to Auburn and make lifelong friends, and I've honestly done that. I'm having a blast."