AUSTIN — I’m in my hotel room in Austin, just a few hours removed from watching the Diboll Lady Jack softball team hammer its way into the state championship game on Thursday (which, to me right now, is tomorrow).
It’s weird, but by the time anyone reads this, the Lady Jacks may be state champs.
This trip to the Hill Country may be my longest jaunt in chasing those kids, but it sure ain’t my first. Starting back in early May when softball teams began their playoff runs, the Lady Jacks have been running me all over the state. I’ve been cranking up some serious mileage on my truck.
As a guy who actually enjoys the occasional road trip, I’ve appreciated their dragging me around with ’em. Hey, I got to stop at Buccee’s at least three times. That’s gotta be worth some gas money, right?
Yes, I’ve loved being along for the ride, and not just for the Beaver Nuggets.
This team is just plain fun to watch, and even more fun to be around. They’re not flashy at all. There’s nothing “look at me” about ’em. About the biggest celebrations I’ve seen for a great play or a win were fist pumps and smiles. That’s it.
Speaking of wins, they’ve been racking them up in piles. They lost their first game of a best-of-three series back in the first round — and they haven’t lost since.
And because I still subscribe to the old baseball adage of “never do anything to mess with a streak,” I’ve worn the same shorts, shirt, shoes and cap for every game. I may or may not have washed them over this past month. The streaks in my clothes are symbols, right?
This poor cap used to be white. It’s a combination of sweat-yellow and dirt-gray now. I don’t care. Streaks are sacred.
As for the team, I could go on for days about their abilities and personalities. There are only four seniors on the squad, but those underclassmen are getting stuff done.
Freshman Kaylee Chagolla has given me highlight-reel plays in left field nearly every game. Same with right fielder Alyssa Mireles (a sophomore). Alexia Arambula is another freshman; she bats cleanup and plays second base. Junior Skyler Martin wields a big bat in big situations; she rocked one off the top of the wall of the stadium at UT today. She hit it so hard, it would still be going if the wall hadn’t stopped it.
And, of course, there’s junior pitcher Kayla Palomino. If you don’t know her story, you need to learn it. She suffered a knee injury late in the playoffs of her freshman season, and I don’t remember a crueler injury in all my time watching sports.
She didn’t just bounce back. She roared back. Kayla has put up some dominant numbers in this playoff run. Talk about perseverance. She’s got more of that than she’s got strikeouts, and that’s saying a lot.
The seniors seem to have grasped how fleeting this kind of success can be, and they’ve passed it down to their teammates. After all, they had a rock-solid team ready last year, only to lose the season — and the chance for a title — because of COVID-19.
Hailey Fuentes is a playmaker who runs the bases faster than I could drive ’em. Mia Mireles has been a rock at third base. She deked a runner in a key situation during Wednesday’s game, faking a throw and throwing back to second for a crucial out. Zayda Perez in center field has thrown out runners at the plate — no easy feat in this game. Mallorie Roman at first base just doesn’t miss the ball, a great comfort for any infielder.
Yeah, they’re good, but their talents haven’t been the only reason I’ve loved following them around.
They’re just so danged sweet.
Normally I’m on a baseline shooting pics, but in a couple of games, umpires banished me to the dugout. The Lady Jacks have gone out of their way to let me get in the way.
Poor Marisa has to go around me every time she leaves the dugout. The other girls see me trying to shoot a pic, and they move out of my way.
When they see the old dude sweating like crazy, they offer me water. Alexi Terrazas, Ashlynn Bounds, Esmeralda Enriquez and Karolina Bucio act as if having a big, slow dude getting in the way is no big deal.
They’re good, they’re fun and they’re just plain sweet. Why wouldn’t I love being around them?
I’m sure someone reading this right now is wondering why I didn’t just wait until the end of the state tournament to write it. The main reason is my deadline is earlier than Thursday’s game would have been.
But I like the idea of writing this right now, while I still don’t know about Thursday’s outcome. Maybe the Lady Jacks will win a state championship for the first time in program history. Maybe there’ll be plenty of reason to celebrate all around.
Then again, maybe they won’t win. Maybe they’ll have to settle for knowing they played for a state title, which is more than a whole lot of us ever got to do.
Maybe instead of a celebration there’ll be some tears.
It has nothing to do with how I feel about those kids and their families.
Win or lose on Thursday, those Lady Jacks have been worth every trip.