INOLA — On a large shelf in Lillie Walker’s bedroom sit two glass storage containers.

They are filled to the brim with softballs, but these red-stitched yellow leather spheres aren’t just some gimmicky decoration. Each one has a significant meaning.

They serve as a reminder of all the home runs the Inola senior hit throughout her career.

“My mom always keeps them, and we write the date and number on them,” Walker said. “It means a lot to have them all boxed up.”

The number of balls in each container is anyone’s guess. Walker herself isn’t sure how many she has blasted out of the park.

“There’s maybe 30 or 31,” Walker estimated.

Although the exact number is up for debate, her favorite is not.

Near the top of one of the containers rests a ball that reads the date of what would be her final homer of her preps career.

9/10/19

Inola vs. Vinita

“It was a close game, and it really lifted everyone’s spirits,” Walker said of the three-run homer, which led the Lady Horns to a 9-0 victory.

Coincidentally, that blast came only hours after she announced her commitment to play softball at Duke University, a Division I program in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

With that ball and countless others only a few feet away in the aforementioned storage containers, Walker made that commitment official on National Signing Day while surrounded by family, friends and coaches in the Longhorn Gym on Wednesday, Nov. 13.

Listed as the 112th-ranked pitcher in the 2020 class, Walker joins the Blue Devils after recording a 1.088 ERA her senior season, striking out 163 batters while also logging a .363 batting average.

Furthermore, she was named the All-State Pitcher of the Year and the All-District Pitcher of the Year out of District 4A-6.

Duke’s program is still in the beginning stages, with its inaugural season coming in 2018. The Blue Devils are 54-58 through two season in the Division I ranks.

That history nugget excites Walker.

“I’m helping build the stepping blocks for future generations of Duke players,” Walker said. “It’s really awesome, and I can’t wait.”

Walker credits her success to her ability to seek out competition.

She began her competitive career at the age of 12, and while many kids desire to be the star of their respective teams, Walker was the opposite.

She actively sought a team on which she wouldn’t be the best player.

That mentality pushed her to work even harder and improve. It is directly correlated with her current situation.

“I ended up getting on Tulsa Elite, and I wasn’t the best pitcher on that team, but I ended up moving to the top of the pitching rotation, and that’s how Duke saw me,” Walker said. “It means a lot to play the best competition you possibly can and play with the best players you possibly can.”

Walker’s competitive nature has led to success on the basketball court as well, but tragedy can strike at the most inopportune times.

She tore her ACL while attempting a left-handed layup during drills last month.

It was only the second practice of the young season.

Walker was understandably concerned about her future after learning the nature of her injury, but Duke assured that her scholarship was safe.

Talk about a sigh of relief.

“Duke is trying to be really involved in my surgery and my rehab to make sure I’m back to where I was so I can perform well for them,” Walker said.

Duke, which sports the 44th-ranked 2020 recruiting class, first approached Walker in California during a Premier Girls Fastpitch (PGF) tournament.

Blue Devil coaches were impressed with Walker, who played for Tulsa Elite 02 Wells, and arranged to have breakfast with her the following morning.

The rest is history.

Walker has since made two visits to Durham, N.C., and she quickly realized her biggest adjustment wouldn’t come on the diamond.

Durham boasts an area of 108.3 square miles and a population of 228,330, according to the 2010 United States Census.

That is quite an increase from Inola’s small-town population (1,788) that is stuffed in a mere 6.6 square miles.

Despite the size difference, Walker said there are similarities between her future and current homes.

“It’s really awesome, and I love all the people,” Walker said of Durham. “It’s definitely going to be a culture change, going from knowing everyone to going to somewhere where I don’t know a single person, but I like the small-town feel. There’s trees and stuff everywhere, and the foliage is beautiful. It’s cute.”

Although she will spend the next few years more than a thousand miles away from the comfort of Inola, Walker said she won’t soon forget where she came from.

She has close relationships with all her family and friends, and arrangements have already been made for visits and routine phone calls.

At times, Walker might feel as if she never left Green Country.

“You can see from the crowd at my signing that a lot of people care,” Walker said. “It really means a lot to see old coaches and friends. I couldn’t be more thankful for all the people who have supported me.”

When those feelings of homesickness and loneliness do emerge, she can always find solace in homeborn memories from family life and athletic endeavors.

Luckily for Walker, both of those things can be found in one place.

That is the magic of a treasure trove of softballs located in two glass storage containers.

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