The Calaveras High School softball field does not appear to be anything special aesthetically, but it’s the place where future college softball players hone their craft.
From 2002 Calaveras graduate Lindy Pettijohn (formerly Winkler), who played at California State University, Sacramento, where she later had her No. 3 jersey retired, to ace pitcher Megan Walters, who recently finished a four-year pitching career at University of the Pacific, to current college players Maddi Wyllie (Corban University), Alexis Dawe (Ohio University) and Alanda Cardon (University of Texas at El Paso), Calaveras softball has produced an excess of college players.
That list continues to grow. Calaveras senior MacKenna Steele is preparing for her final high school season before taking her talents 150 miles south to California State University, Fresno, where she will be a Bulldog in the fall of 2020.
Steele knows that everything Fresno has to offer is bigger and better than what is available at Calaveras. From the weight rooms, field conditions and travel, Fresno goes above and beyond. But as she sat on the visitors’ bench and looked out at her home softball field for the past three years, Steele knows she wouldn’t be headed where she is had it not been for that special diamond.
“This is home,” Steele said while looking at the Calaveras softball field. “This is where it all started. This is where my dad and I started training when I was 10. We’d come here every Friday to workout, get ground balls in and hit. It’s basically where it all started.”
Softball was not Steele’s first love. As a young athlete, she fancied herself a soccer player. But when she was 9 years old, Steele gave softball a shot. And right off the bat, she knew soccer would have to take a back seat.
“Softball was something new and something different,” Steele said. “When I started playing, I was determined to get better and I always wanted to play. There was no time where I didn’t want to play softball.”
After only a few years of playing softball, Steele got put on a competitive travel team with older girls. It was there she saw how the older girls were making plans for their future and Steele realized that she wanted to one day do the same.
“When I was 12, they put me on a 16-year-old team,” Steele recalled. “That gave me the confidence to know that I could play at a bigger level. Going up showed me that the older girls were looking at colleges and that’s what they want and that’s what I wanted, too. I wanted to go further in life and I wanted to do it with softball.”
Playing on a team surrounded by older players continued when Steele got to high school. As a freshman, she circumvented the JV team and joined the varsity squad as a second baseman. In her first high school season, Steele hit .395 with 34 hits, 27 RBIs, 11 doubles, six triples, 43 runs scored and one home run.
As a sophomore, Steele hit a cool .488 with 27 RBIs, 19 doubles, eight triples and a career-high four home runs. She also spent more time in the circle, posting a 6-1 record with an ERA of 3.78.
Last year, Steele hit .368 with 31 runs scored, 15 RBIs, six triples and three doubles. And for the third year in a row, she helped lead Calaveras to the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV softball championship game. Unfortunately for Steele and her Calaveras teammates, the three consecutive trips to the title games resulted in three straight losses.
“We live in a small town and everyone underestimates us and doesn’t think that we are going to go far,” Steele said. “But, just being that team to prove that we are good enough was big.”
In three years at Calaveras, Steele is hitting .408 with 109 hits, 120 runs scored, 69 RBIs, 33 doubles, 20 triples, five home runs and has a fielding percentage of .913. So, when it came time to choose a college, Steele had options, but there was something comforting about Fresno that left a lasting impression.
“It felt like home to me,” Steele said. “When I went on my unofficial visit, just being on the campus felt like home. You have FFA (Future Farmers of America) around and open fields. It felt like home, it really did.”
At Fresno, Steele will take on top teams from all over the country. In 2020, the Bulldogs are slated to take on: No. 7 Florida; No. 17 Michigan; Cal; Stanford; Ohio State; University of Texas; BYU; Boise State; San Jose State; and others. And while the quality of competition and the emphasis on winning pleased Steele, what sold her on the program was that softball was not the alpha and the omega.
“The coaches let me know that at Fresno, it’s family, school and softball,” Steele said. “My coaches want me to be ready for life when I’m done with playing softball. They want me to succeed and that’s their first priority.”
Before Steele puts on a Bulldog uniform and calls Margie Wright Diamond her new home, she’s still got one final season at Calaveras to make memories and play on the field that helped pave the way to her future. While she’s the latest Calaveras player to move on to the next level, she won’t be the last, and hopefully her dedication to the program has inspired younger players to aim high and swing hard.
“It’s a family here,” Steele said about the Calaveras softball team. “We can come here and talk about anything we want and nobody is judgmental. Everyone is focused and determined, and we push each other and make sure everyone is at their best.”