Western Oregon senior Sara Tucholsky had never hit a home run in her career. Central Washington senior Mallory Holtman was already her school's career leader in them. But when a twist of fate and a torn knee ligament brought them face to face with each other and face to face with the end of their playing days, they combined on a home run trot that celebrated the collective human spirit far more than individual athletic achievement.
Both schools compete as Division II softball programs in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. Neither has ever reached the NCAA tournament at the Division II level. But when they arrived for Saturday's conference doubleheader at Central Washington's 300-seat stadium in Ellensburg, a small town 100 miles and a mountain range removed from Seattle, the hosts resided one game behind the visitors at the top of the conference standings. As was the case at dozens of other diamonds across the map, two largely anonymous groups prepared to play the most meaningful games of their seasons.
It was a typical Saturday of softball in April, right down to a few overzealous fans heckling an easy target, the diminutive Tucholsky, when she came to the plate in the top of the second inning of the second game with two runners on base and the game still scoreless after Western Oregon's 8-1 win in the first game of the afternoon.
"I just remember trying to block them out," Tucholsky said of the hecklers. "The first pitch I took, it was a strike. And then I really don't remember where the home run pitch was at all; [I] just remember hitting it, and I knew it was out."
A part-time starter in the outfield throughout her four years, Tucholsky had been caught in a numbers game this season on a deep roster that entered the weekend hitting better than .280 and having won nine games in a row. Prior to the pitch she sent over the center-field fence, she had just three hits in 34 at-bats this season. And in that respect, her hitting heroics would have made for a pleasing, if familiar, story line on their own: an unsung player steps up in one of her final games and lifts her team's postseason chances.
But it was what happened after an overly excited Tucholsky missed first base on her home run trot and reversed direction to tag the bag that proved unforgettable.
"Sara is small -- she's like 5-2, really tiny," Western Oregon coach Pam Knox said. "So you would never think that she would hit a home run. The score was 0-0, and Sara hit a shot over center field. And I'm coaching third and I'm high-fiving the other two runners that came by -- then all of a sudden, I look up, and I'm like, 'Where's Sara?' And I look over, and she's in a heap beyond first base."
While she was doubling back to tag first base, Tucholsky's right knee gave out. The two runners who had been on base already had crossed home plate, leaving her the only offensive player on the field of play, even as she lay crumpled in the dirt a few feet from first base and a long way from home plate. First-base coach Shannon Prochaska -- Tucholsky's teammate for three seasons and the only voice she later remembered hearing in the ensuing conversation -- checked to see whether she could crawl back to the base under her own power.
As Knox explained, "It went through my mind, I thought, 'If I touch her, she's going to kill me.' It's her only home run in four years. I didn't want to take that from her, but at the same time, I was worried about her."