Taylor Cotton was among those in a record attendance of 1,200 at Sacramento State's softball game in which Cal's Jolene Henderson pitched the nationally ranked Bears to a 1-0 win over the Hornets.
But Cotton was there as more than a mere spectator.
The Whitney High School senior has known Henderson, a former Sheldon High standout now in her senior year at Cal, for nearly five years. Despite their age difference, they have grown close. Both have the same pitching coach and often piggyback sessions with each other.
Come this fall, Cotton will be in line to replace Henderson in the pitching circle at Cal. The Lincoln resident signed a letter of intent with the Bears last November.
There will be big cleats to fill.
Henderson is considered one of the nation's top collegiate pitchers and has won a school-record 123 games. On Monday she was the third overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch draft.
"She's had a huge influence on me, and I think we're pretty close friends," Cotton said. "She's become a big name at Cal. It's going to be a challenge trying to live up to what she has done there."
There are several similarities in their games.
Henderson and Cotton are among the hardest throwers to come out of this area. Both are mentally tough, confident and prolific workers.
"They are the same as far as their drive to succeed, to continually get better and to work for it," said Joe Jaquez, their pitching coach and an assistant softball coach at Sheldon. "But in every other way they are completely different pitchers."
Henderson is 5-foot-8, solidly built, right-handed and throws a wicked drop ball. Cotton is a wiry 5-4 left-hander with a nasty rise ball.
But as Henderson did at Sheldon, Cotton is dominating high school hitters.
In a 4-1 win over Sierra Foothill League power Del Oro in the Victory Preseason tournament championship game last month, Cotton struck out 19 of 24 batters in tossing a two-hitter. In three varsity seasons, she has struck out 438 in 362 innings.
So how does such a small pitcher produce velocity of 60 mph or more from 43 feet, the equivalent of throwing in the low- to mid-90s in baseball?
"It's her mechanics," said Whitney coach April Steele, a former pitcher at Casa Roble High. "When she's on her game, she's throwing at high-level college speed. Her rise ball is coming in at 64 (mph), so batters are pretty much just guessing because there is little time to react."
But whereas a taller, stronger pitcher can sometimes get away with a mistake, Cotton has to be nearly flawless in her grip, stance, windup, stride, release and follow-through.
"I don't have the height gene," Cotton said, laughing. "I have to do everything correctly to get the maximum speed out of my body."
Cotton showed she's not invincible.
Five days after her gem against Del Oro, the Golden Eagles beat Cotton and Whitney 6-3. She allowed eight hits and five runs, walked three and struck out eight.
But the off days are getting more uncommon because of her remarkable dedication to her craft.
"I've never seen a player put in as much time as she does," said Steele, who has coached softball for 17 seasons. "She does cardio on her own, runs on her own and throws every day. I think being good friends with Jolene helps. She's got a great mentor."
It doesn't hurt coming from an athletic family, either. She often works out and lifts weights with her father, Derek, who played baseball at UNLV. Mother Trish played high school volleyball, and Taylor's younger sister, Alexandria, is an elite-level soccer player. Then there is Chase, her 4-year-old brother.
"I just adore him," says Taylor, who maintains a 4.2 grade-point average. "He's been around sports since he's 2 weeks old. If there's a ball, he wants to play. I'm sure we'll be hearing all about him someday."
While playing in the ultra-competitive Amateur Softball Association during the summer can be grueling, the high school season is a chance for Cotton and her teammates to play in a more relaxed atmosphere.
Cotton doesn't get a chance to swing the bat for her Southern California-based ASA team, but for Whitney she is hitting a team-leading .529.
In a three-hit, 5-1 win over two-time defending Sac-Joaquin Section Division I champion Sheldon on Tuesday, Cotton had two hits, a sacrifice bunt and stole a base.
Whitney's motto this season is "Finish It." The Wildcats were section Division III runners-up the last two years.
"We joke around and have fun, but our goal is to win it all," Cotton said.
10 hard-throwing high school softball pitchers from the past
Former Sheldon star Jolene Henderson and current Whitney standout Taylor Cotton aren't the only area pitchers who can bring the heat.
Here are 10 other high-velocity hurlers from through the years. Who would be on your list?
KELLY ANDERSON, WOODLAND
The Bee Pitcher of the Year in 2001 beat Fairfield's Alicia Hollowell 1-0 in a memorable 30-inning game section playoff game and had a streak of 117 innings without allowing a run. Anderson went on to pitch for Cal.
ALLY CARDA, PLEASANT GROVE
Bee Player of the Year in 2009, who led the Eagles to their first and only section softball title that season, struck out 1,118 batters and helped Pleasant Grove win 86 games during her star-studded career. Now plays at UCLA.
NICOLE DEATHERAGE, OAK RIDGE
Bee Player of the Year in 2000, she won 29 games and pitched 17 shutouts and eight no-hitters in leading the Trojans to their second D-II section title in three years. Went on to pitch for Sacramento State.
CHELSEA ENGLE, FOLSOM
The three-time Bee First Team selectee led the area with 366 strikeouts in 171 innings in going 22-5 with an 0.33 ERA as a senior in 2005. Had 10 no-hitters as a junior and finished her prep career with 1,108 strikeouts before going on to pitch at Pacific.
KAREN JACKSON, ROSEVILLE
Went 20-0, threw 128 consecutive scoreless innings and was named Cal-Hi Sports State Softball Player of the Year in leading the Tigers (also State Team of the Year) to the D-I section title in 1990. Went on to be an All-American at Iowa.
TERRI MCFARLAND, HIRAM JOHNSON
Bee Player of the Year in 1988 after going 23-3 and striking out 284 when on to be an All-Big Ten Conference pitcher at Iowa, where she left holding 11 Hawkeye records.
STACI STAFFORD, BELLA VISTA
Struck out 365 batters in 186 innings and compiled an 0.19 earned-run average in being named The Bee's Player of the Year in 1991. Went on to pitch at Nebraska.
RACHELLE TAYLOR, SAN JUAN
Went 23-10 with 0.39 ERA and 252 strikeouts in leading the Spartans to a Capital Athletic League title in 1989. Went on to pitch no-hitters for Oregon against Stanford and Santa Clara.
ANDREA VIDLUND, CASA ROBLE
Led the Rams to three consecutive D-I championships, went 21-4 with 190 strikeouts as a senior in 1999 and handed Fairfield legend Alicia Hollowell her only two losses that season, including the section title game, to earn Cal-Hi's State Softball Player of the Year award. Went on to pitch at Oregon.
AMY WINDMILLER, MIRA LOMA
Blessed with a name synonymous with strikeouts, the 1989 Bee Player of the Year recorded 1,336, a Northern California record at that time. Had 430 strikeouts as a senior and struck out 21 batters in a game as a junior. Went on to pitch at Sacramento City College and Northridge.
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson (916) 326-5506.