Amador Valley high softball coach Teresa Mayes-Borchard wasn’t sure what to expect when her players returned to practice this season, a year after losing virtually the entire 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 shutdown.
Those long months were a long time to wait for their next high school at-bat, but she knew she had quality senior leaders in ace pitcher Mia Hildebrand, second baseman Hannah Kramer and shortstop Ally Kim, on a typically solid team that improved to 7-1 with a victory last week. However, she worried the shutdown would hurt the players’ confidence, fitness, and team spirit.
Her fears were quickly validated when she first observed the team.
“Being isolated for a year had a huge impact on these kids,” said Mayes-Borchard. “The impact was way worse than I expected. I was so worried about them that I cried many times after practice. Not being around them for so long, I could see just how much of their confidence and willingness to take risk was destroyed. It had been replaced with anxiety, caution and melancholy.”
She also noticed how quiet the team was.
“I tried everything to get them to laugh and talk to each other,” she recalled. “After a couple of weeks, I finally said, ‘Where are my goofy teenage girls? You are all boring!’ It made them laugh, especially the freshmen that don’t know my sense of humor.”
The half-joke hit the mark. The Dons’ collective smile returned, and players started to get loud again, act goofy, and confident. Success has made them happier still. Last week, Amador Valley avenged its only loss by beating San Ramon Valley 1-0 in nine innings.
Amador Valley, whose solid senior group also includes Abbey Heinemann and Jordon Lederer, has a rich softball history playing in the powerful East Bay Athletic League, including winning North Coast Section (NCS) Division I titles in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2018. The Dons fell to rival Foothill in the 2019 NCS semifinals.
Despite this, 2021 has been about more than wins and losses for the Dons. One of the coach’s primary goals was to just let her players feel some sense of joy again.
“I have been really easy on them and have mandatory fun days!” she said. “My goal has been to let these kids have fun, get their childhood back, and relieve some of the stress they have had.”
A dedicated athlete headed to UC Davis on a softball scholarship, Hildebrand hasn’t missed a beat this season. She had a 1.10 ERA, .417 batting average and seven RBI through eight games. Kramer was hitting .348 with three triples and seven RBI.
The senior leaders have helped lift them team’s spirit. The whole ‘boring’ thing has been pretty much handled.
“We’ve hung out a lot, we’ve worked well together, and now our team chemistry is great, we’re having tons of fun, we’re winning, and everyone’s contributing to the team,” Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand did not waste time during the pandemic, constantly working on her fitness and softball prowess. Having quality players behind her on the field adds to her confidence, she says.
Kramer, Kim and Hildebrand epitomize the Dons’ mindset as four-year varsity players.
“Hannah is extremely positive, she always has a smile on her face,” Hildebrand said. “Ally Kim is very quiet, actually, but she’s a stud, and she’s always positive. It’s funny, because she’s quiet but she’s super funny, and we kind of bring out the loud side of her, even though her loud side isn’t that loud. They’re both awesome, and they both compete, for sure.”
Kramer laughed when she was told of Hildebrand’s description of her upbeat personality.
“I try, yeah,” she said. “I really love softball. Softball makes me really happy, and we haven’t played for over a year now, or at least for me, because I didn’t play any travel ball or anything, so I’m just generally so happy to be back.”
Kramer describes Hildebrand as the best leader on the team and an amazing role model for the younger girls.
“I know I still look up to her after playing with her since elementary school,” Kramer said.
Kramer attributes the team’s understandable uncertainty upon returning this season to being separated from the group.
“We just hadn’t seen each other for so long; it was just a little bit awkward,” said Kramer, who is heading to Boise State to major in biology. “We had to just hang out again and make conversation and all become friends again. (We were) also nervous, because we didn’t know if there was going to be a season. I’m happy everything worked out.”
Many teams, including the Dons, are wearing masks as an extra precaution during the pandemic. This season feels like a gift in some ways, with all the uncertainty in the air.
“I was of the mindset that I wasn’t going to get to play this year due to COVID-19, so I’m just a lot more grateful and happy to be out there,” said Hildebrand, who’s cheered on at games by a hearty contingent, including her parents and grandparents.
Mayes-Borchard is happy to be back too, and she knows this Dons’ bunch is special.
“They are an absolute joy to be around,” she said. “I have given them so much latitude and down time, but in return they are playing fantastic.”