smiling group

Catcher Katelyn Estep grins with her teammates during a game with Mission Oak.

Mission Oak athletes warmed up in left field while pitcher Emily Fortaney practiced with catcher Katelyn Estep just outside of Sanger’s Apache softball diamond fences. 

The pair paid little attention as one, two and then a haphazard flurry of butterflies beat their tiny wings across the softball field March 19. Fortaney and Estep focused on honing skills that would enable them to beat the visiting Hawks while the insects, a species known as painted ladies, traveled through Sanger in what could be record numbers on their way from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest.

Perhaps it was a sign. Something of a butterfly effect. Fresno County entomologist Gene Hannon said since his return to the central San Joaquin Valley in 2007, he’s never seen anything quite like the confetti-like flocks of migrating butterflies. He attributed it to the epic rains and widespread desert flower blooms that have been getting national attention and drawing hoards of tourists. “It is a natural phenomenon,” he said.

So was the game that afternoon.

The Hawks started strong in the top of the first inning with utility player Payton Quinonez singling on her first at bat. But she didn’t get far before getting tagged out trying to steal second. The Apaches also tagged Mission Oak’s Madison Romero at third just before Fortaney fanned Hawk Jayden Sanders for the final out.

Then it got weird. Kind of.

The Apaches racked up 10 runs just before Sophia Mares nearly made it 11 but instead got the third out, ending one of the most prolific first innings for the team in recent memory. Apaches led 10-0. Scores were notched by Amber Vasquez, Janessa Montejano, Sophia Mares, Isabel Rosales, Natalya Pasillas, Alyssa Montejano, Danessa Castro and Cassandra Acosta.

And there it stayed, for awhile. Mission Oak showed flashes of offense like in top of the third inning when Kaylee Melendez tripled and scored on the next play to make it 10-1. The Hawks added two more runs that inning.

Then the teams battled it out. Freshman Malia Alvarez replaced Fortaney on the pitcher’s mound. Madison Lopez put on catcher’s gear and entered the game.

Natalya Pasillas scored for the Apaches in the bottom of the sixth inning when Leah Estrada singled, bringing the score to 11-4. But the next inning almost derailed Sanger’s lead.

Maybe it truly was the butterfly effect, a variant of the chaos theory where a tiny change in a complex system can have drastic side effects. Thus the earlier reference to the painted lady butterflies. 

A bunch kept fluttering their tiny wings around the diamond, causing all sorts of imagined havoc.

However, the Hawks went wild in the top of the seventh, with Melendez starting it off with another score. Then four more found home plate before the Apaches threw out the Hawk's Melendez on her return in the batting rotation. Final score was 11-9.

Vanessa Leon, from last year’s team, wasn’t worried. “They’re good,” she said of her Apaches. Leon said she’s coaching eighth grade at Washington Academic Middle School and attending Fresno State. 

Castro, a senior on this year’s team, paused a bit when asked for her assessment of the 2019 Apaches. “It’s a new team,” she said. “New players. We’re growing. We’re going to keep practicing hard, and we’re going to be ready.”

Fortaney put it this way. “One of our biggest things is having the heart to play and go all out,” she said. “We need to be able to communicate. I’m hoping that we can grow. I know we can do better.

“We shouldn’t be struggling after a 10-0 lead.”

Estep said the team has “so many good players. It’s just a matter of consistency. Who is going to work harder, basically. Once we find the lineup, we’re going to Valleys. We’ve been really working on leadership. We can go all the way, but every day we’ve got to put in the work.”

Coach Erica Pennington said her starting nine players are completely different this year and that she and her assistant coaches, Marissa Marquez and Stephanie Weathers, have yet to settle on a solid starting lineup. 

“It’s who’s going to show up on any given day,” she said. “We tell them it’s a tryout every day. 

“They have so much talent. We’re just waiting for them. They have to learn the game and learn (how their teammates play).”

Pennington said sometimes one is hot while the other is cold, or the reverse is true. “They’re fun to coach,” she said after putting away concessions from the game.

And Pennington said they all get along so well.

Back to butterflies. The National Weather Service on March 21 declared an end to California’s drought, explaining that it’s the first time the state is drought free since 2011. Wildflowers are everywhere. And painted lady butterflies enjoy them.

But not one of them flies in a straight line. They do, however, get where they want to go. 

The Apaches are headed where they want to go. A little adjustment here and there and they may find a way deep into the post-season.

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