Growing up, senior catcher Lauren Espalin had games postponed due to rain, parent-umpire scuffles, and bee swarms — these delays, of course, only affecting a game or two at a time. Never would she have expected a global pandemic to tack itself onto that list, let alone prompt the cancellation of almost an entire season.
It’s been almost a year since Espalin and her teammates have seen the dirt for a scored matchup. The Bears were coming off a weekend of mixed results at the James Madison University Dukes Invitational, eager to host then-No. 9 Oregon for a series that would have kicked off conference play. But instead of knotting up their cleats to duel with a Pac-12 powerhouse, the players found their stomachs in knots as they were dealt the same somber news received by the rest of their spring sport counterparts: Their season was suspended until further notice.
What once was a group accustomed to spending weekends shoulder to shoulder in a 6-by-30 foot dugout dispersed across the country by the end of March. For Espalin, this meant relocating to her home in southern California, in which she is thankful to have spent the pandemic’s early months quarantined under the same roof as another D1 athlete.
“My brother plays baseball at the University of Indiana, so we were kind of stuck in it together,” Espalin said. “Even just being able to play catch with him, to train with him during that time, is something I am so fortunate for.”
In addition to adjusting to online classes, spending time with their parents and finding ways to stay motivated, the team members also saw longtime head coach Diane Ninemire step down midway through last spring’s abbreviated season. Though Cal’s all-time wins record-holder may have left some sizable shoes to fill after more than 32 years at the helm, new head coach Chelsea Spencer and the rest of her freshly minted coaching staff appear to have made a seamless transition — even before meeting many of the girls in person.
“The new coaching staff, they’re amazing,” Espalin said. “(Before in-person practices were allowed), we got on Zoom every week and focused on the mental aspect of our game and the influence and importance of its impact on our physical performance, allowing us to get to know each other on a better and closer level … not only is the person next to you your teammate but someone who really understands you and how you tick.”
Tucked away at the base of Strawberry Canyon, the team was able to return to Levine-Fricke Field in early January, where it appears Spencer’s virtual efforts have paid off.
“It was definitely an adjustment meeting my coaches for the first time over Zoom, and most of my teammates, for that matter,” said freshman pitcher Haylei Archer. “But as soon as we started practicing, I felt like I’d known them forever.”
While the team is grateful to be back together on its old stomping grounds, its season remains in logistical limbo. Having seen sports like basketball and baseball return to play, the uncertainty and lack of schedule remain understandably disheartening.
“I am hopeful that we are going to at least play Pac-12,” Espalin said. “At this point, it’s just a matter of (coaches and league officials) trying to find the safest, most conducive way to do so.”
After seeing last year’s seniors get their final season get cut short, there is no doubt this year’s group will make most of any opportunity to play. Mikayla Coelho, an integral part of the Bears’ roster since leading the team in home runs and RBIs her freshman year and part of this year’s graduating class, is no exception.
“Simply being on the dirt (is something) I will cherish,” Coelho shared. “In my final season of collegiate softball, I really want to put everything I have into it and win as much as possible … I want to make the most of every moment I have left as a Cal softball player.”
Though a strong campaign will be necessary to compete in a conference that boasted five of the NCAA’s top-15 teams when play came to a halt last March, the past months spent building team camaraderie and desire to make up for lost games fuel optimism. The pandemic was unlike any curveball Cal softball has seen, but should the Bears get a chance to step up to the plate this spring, their eyes will be set on the fences.