Talking about their sophomore softball season at Rocklin High School brings back painful memories for Mallory Asaro, Kendall Chambers and Alanna Rainier.
The Thunder won only three times in 22 games in 2011. There was little unity, emotion or drive, and many players couldn't wait for the season to end.
"It didn't feel like we were on a team," said Chambers, a pitcher. "We weren't having fun, and it was hard to come to practice every day. It was almost, 'What's the point?' "
Asaro, who had played on a playoff team as a freshman the year before, couldn't believe how far things had sunk.
"That season was really frustrating because we knew how much talent we had," said Asaro, a shortstop.
This year, that talent helped turn things around for the Thunder (23-3), which won the competitive Sierra Foothill League title and finished the regular season as The Bee's top-ranked team.
On Saturday, Rocklin begins its quest to win the school's first Sac-Joaquin Section softball championship in a loaded Division I field. The Thunder plays Buhach Colony of Atwater at 11 a.m. at the Sacramento Softball Complex in the single-elimination opening round.
While Asaro, Chambers and Rainier aren't completely surprised by the turnaround, the seniors feel fortunate to be leaders and role models on what may be the best softball team in school history.
"Sometimes I go, 'Wow,' " said Rainier, who shares catching duties with junior Sam Moffat. "We're doing well, we're working well as a team and, as opposed to other seasons, we haven't fallen apart."
While the seniors give credit to second-year coach Marissa Hardy, the 25-year-old former Rocklin and East Tennessee State standout praises Asaro, Chambers, Rainier and the team's fourth senior, Jillian Lerner, an outfielder who avoided the 2011 drama because she played on Hardy's 17-1-2 junior varsity team that season.
"She brought more focus, more order, goals and better conditioning," Rainier said. "She's not an outsider looking in, and she relates well to us. She's almost like an older sister."
When Hardy laid out her program last year - Rocklin went 12-13-1 in her debut season - it was all about working harder, playing smarter and being accountable to one another. The seniors bought in.
"It didn't take much convincing," Hardy said. "I knew they loved the game. It was just a matter of shifting our approach, instilling confidence in them and letting them know that if they led this team, then they could reach the top."
When the Thunder lost back-to-back games in mid-April to league heavyweights Roseville and Woodcreek after starting the season 15-1, Chambers said there was no panic or thoughts they might revert to 2011's misery.
Rocklin won its last eight games, including 3-1 over Roseville and 2-1 over Woodcreek.
"Every season, you're going to have a game or two where things fall apart," Chambers said. "But the difference this year is that we picked up the pieces - the losses brought us even closer."
That unity is epitomized by Chambers and junior Maddie Wuelfing, talented pitchers who gladly share time on the mound. Wuelfing is 10-1 with a 1.20 ERA in 87.1 innings; Chambers is 13-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 80.2 innings.
"It's a great combination," said Chambers, who will play next season at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. "If a team is hitting one of us pretty well, we can put the other in and, almost without fail, the other will stop the bleeding."
Although Rocklin would be favored in Division II, the section moved the Sierra Foothill League into Division I this season, so the Thunder is in the same field as nationally ranked and unbeaten Vintage of Napa and perennial heavyweights Sheldon, Pleasant Grove and Elk Grove, not to mention Roseville and Woodcreek.
"The playoffs are a brand-new ballgame," Hardy said. "It's about who is mentally ready to play that day. With everyone now out to win the (section banner), we're going to work even harder. We know nothing is going to be given to us."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.