Pandemic season brings softball team closer

They made the playoffs but players, coaches say season’s rewards more about learning the value of resilience and community

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Risa Darlington-Horta

The varsity infield meets at the mound during the Knights’ loss to Anderson on March 2. Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the Knights earned a 5A state playoff spot by finishing fourth behind Lockhart, Anderson and LASA.

Tallulah Wilson, staff reporter

This year’s season of softball has been one unlike any other. Throughout the difficulties, junior Naya Domingo, sophomore Lena Garces, assistant coach Carly Kehn and the rest of the team have learned to focus on the light in one of the most challenging years they’ve ever faced.

“We have all been there for each other through it,” Domingo said, “and we have gotten a lot better. We are definitely coming together as a team.”

We are grateful for the opportunity to get back on the field. We just want our athletes to have fun, show good sportsmanship, and compete to the best of their ability.”

— assistant coach Carly Kehn

Domingo, an outfielder on the team, is in her third season playing at McCallum, but has a much longer history with softball.

“I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old,” Domingo said. “I started with tee ball, then coach pitch and then actual fast-pitch.”

For Domingo, softball was a way to get to know the Mac community and become more involved in the sport she loves so much.

“I decided to join softball, at least at Mac, because I love the sport and I was already playing outside of school,” Domingo said. “I thought it was a good way to meet some cool people and do something I love almost every day.”

For Kehn, who has been with Mac softball for the last four years, coaching softball is also a way of meeting new people and reconnecting with the game of softball.

“I played softball in high school and had a great experience,” Kehn said. “I really enjoyed the sport and camaraderie with my teammates and coaches. When I arrived Coach Matz and Coach Salazar wanted some extra help on the field, and I thought it would be another great way to get involved with the McCallum community.”

Junior Mary Ayala talks to Coach Elizabeth Sanders during Mac’s loss to Anderson on March 2. (Risa Darlington-Horta)

Since her high school days, Coach Kehn has seen softball as much more than just a sport, but as a way of guiding teenagers and teaching them lifelong lessons.

“The relationships I get the opportunity to build with student-athletes is definitely the reason I coach,” Kehn said. “As a former player, I still talk to many of my high school coaches. They pushed me to be the best version of myself all the while showing me I was valued as a human being. I want to be that mentor for our student-athletes.”

Having to miss two weeks or so for quarantine or actually getting [COVID] was really hard. Everything can change on a dime, and it’s just hard to adapt to.”

— junior outfielder Naya Domingo

As for this season, Kehn best describes it as one of ebbs and flows. Adaptation has been a key element through this season as many girls decided not to return to play, especially afer such a big break between the premature end of the 2020 season and a delayed start to the 2021 season. Since the beginning of the 2020 season, the team has had some eye-opening experiences about their necessary level of play and has since then began the hard work needed to fill in the gaps.

“Without having a [full] season last year, we have had to relearn a lot of things on and off the field,” Kehn said. “The student-athletes are definitely working to improve every day. We have been competing in district and put ourselves in a position where we can make playoffs. All in all, we are grateful for the opportunity to get back on the field. We just want our athletes to have fun, show good sportsmanship, and compete to the best of their ability.”

Domingo, who actually experienced COVID first-hand, seconds the importance of adaptation for this season and how that has been one of the most challenging under- takings for the whole team.

“Having to miss two weeks or so for quarantine or actually getting [COVID] was really hard,” Domingo said. “Everything can change on a dime and it’s just hard to adapt to.”

Senior Paula Briceño practices quick throws from her knees during an afternoon practice. Photo by Dave Winter.

But Domingo and the team were able to make it through stronger than they were before and have learned what it’s like to take for granted something you love.

“I’m definitely so thankful to be able to have the season even though we’ve had to adapt,” Domingo said. “That’s the one thing I’m taking away from this season, is being grateful to even be able to play. And we’ve done really well this year!”

Another big change from this year to last year was definitely our energy. We have gotten so much better at keeping our energy up and cheering each other on.”

— sophomore Lena Garces

Despite their struggles dealing with the pandemic and some really tough disrict opponents, the team rallied around each other and kept their spirits high.

“I think another big change from this year to last year was definitely our energy,” Garces added. “We have gotten so much better at keeping our energy up and cheering each other on!”

Although all sports have felt the impact of COVID-19 and its restrictions, the spring sports were the only ones who had their seasons shut down in 2020. Many players entered this season without having played for well over a year. This hiatus led some players to leave the sport for even longer, which opened up opportunities for newer players.

“With many returning players not coming back to play this year, we have several students that haven’t really played more than a game or two of high school softball starting and playing on our varsity team,” Kehn said. “It is a great opportunity for them but also makes for a huge learning curve. They are trying to bridge the gap as quickly as possible and have really stepped up and grown so much this year.”

Another difficulty the softball team encountered: a lack of preseason meant that the players were not able to interact with each other, which hindered early efforts to build team chemistry.

“COVID surged in the winter months, so the majority of players were doing workouts at home, which is great to keep everyone safe and healthy, but not so great when it comes to building team chemistry,” Kehn said. “Some of the players physically met each other on tryout day, which is abnormal for softball. Preseason is a very valuable time because you have the first half of the school year to break down individual skills, work on conditioning, and build team relationships. So this year, when the season started, we were starting from square one.”

The team has overcome these challenges together with good communication, patience, and looking out for each other.

“We have hit the ground running and are adjusting daily,” Kehn said earlier this season. “Our captains have … had the challenge of learning each player’s personality so they can lead them in a way that is productive for the team. Despite all the challenges, we are headed in the right direction. Regardless of how the remainder of the season wraps up, Coach Sanders and myself feel confident that we are preparing the athletes for far more than softball.”

For many of the softball players and coaches, the goal of the season is to focus on the best and most important parts of being on the softball team, regardless of the challenges you are faced with. At the end of the regular season, the Knights made the playoffs with a fourth-place finish in district play.

“My favorite thing about playing softball is that it’s always changing,” Domingo said. “Softball is the one sport that something different happens every game, and I love that. I also love building community and bonding with such cool people.”