Anessa Kaylor needs only to rub her left shoulder, amid a grimace and then a grin, to understand the magnitude of this rivalry.
The Sheldon High School senior shortstop didn’t just aim to get a piece of the ball when she stepped to the plate against Pleasant Grove last month, she wanted to tear the cover off. So Kaylor gave it a hearty Reggie Jackson swing, corkscrewing herself into the dirt. The leadoff hitter fouled off the ball and popped out her shoulder at the same time, dropping to the ground in agony.
“Dislocated it, but I was competing because it’s a hunger,” Kaylor said this week, eye brows and voice raised for emphasis. “That’s what a game against Pleasant Grove does to you.”
Sheldon squeezed past Pleasant Grove 3-2 in that March 27 game with Kaylor scoring the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning. The San Jose State-bound standout scored the only run and ace Gabby Montaie pitched a gem for a 1-0 victory over the Eagles on Tuesday in another intense contest that makes for one of the region’s most spirited rivalries. And Kaylor did it with a shoulder harness that has restricted her motion since the first Pleasant Grove outing. Kaylor is targeting a healthy playoff run, which could mean yet another game against the Eagles, perhaps in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I final.
Sheldon has won four section titles since 2007 and five overall under coach Mary Jo Truesdale. Pleasant Grove beat Sheldon 1-0 for its lone crown in 2009. Both programs have been nationally ranked No. 1 in recent seasons, and both have sent scores of scholarship players to the best Division I programs in the country. The proximity of the schools, located 4.4 miles apart, is one thing. What all from both teams agree on is this: They’re good for each other. The players know each other from playing with or against each other for years in summer travel ball.
This is unlike the boys’ basketball rivalry between the schools, where transfers and finger pointing between the programs have made for a rivalry that has nearly boiled over.
“We have a very healthy softball competition with Pleasant Grove, and that’s the really nice thing about it,” Truesdale said. “We all get along. It’s better that way.”
The good vibes include a lot of banter. Before the teams played Tuesday at Pleasant Grove for first place in the Delta River League, Eagles co-coach Bob Book, a Sacramento County Sheriff, joked that he could influence the game in the time it would take to place Truesdale in the back seat of his nearby squad car. To which Truesdale joked: “Oh, he’d do it, too, and it’d be funny. I’d have my hands on the window, calling out plays.”
How healthy is the rivalry? When Pleasant Grove senior catcher Vanessa Washington raced into second base with a double, she was greeted by smiling Sheldon second baseman Zamari Hinton, a senior headed to Sacramento State. They exchanged a high-five, then looked around to see if anyone noticed.
Mostly, Washington wears what she calls her “focus face” when she competes. Washington, headed to Delaware State, leads all Northern California players with nine home runs.
“Incredible swing and power,” Book said.
Players in both programs have a grasp on life beyond the final score.
Kaylor talked just as excitedly about pursuing an advanced degree in psychology as she did about winning softball games. Hinton beamed while discussing her career goals of getting into criminal justice, “like working for the CIA,” she said.
Washington said she wants to be like her father, Leland, a lawyer.
“I want to get into law, something to help people, to bring justice,” Washington said.
Pleasant Grove third baseman Alexa McCoin said she is so inspired by the plight of her father that she has changed career goals. A Bee All-Metro forward at Casa Roble in the 1980s who played at Sac State and is an assistant coach with the boys basketball team, Bill McCoin has been battling cancer. He finished his chemo sessions over the winter and last month returned to work with the Sacramento Police Department. He gets emotional when talking about his daugher, and she about him.
“I wanted to get into law enforcement like him, but after watching what the nurses did to help my dad when he was going through chemo, it hit me: ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Alexa McCoin said. “What he went through, it was the first time I’d seen him cry, and it killed me to see him in pain. I want to be there to help people. Softball is a game. This is real life.”
Truesdale is the only softball head coach in Sheldon history, starting the program in 1995 after a successful stint at Elk Grove. She’s won 512 games combined at the two schools and 625 for her career, which includes four seasons in Michigan. Already inducted into the Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame, Truesdale said she “absolutely enjoys my life.”
Retired from teaching Spanish at Sheldon four years ago, Truesdale is a regular on the golf course, in coffee shops and on softball diamonds. She hasn’t lost her zest to teach and win, explaining: “We do keep score for a reason.” Truesdale said she is firm, yet fair when dealing with players. She’ll scold her athletes, and then later hand out marbles after a big win, the motto being, “Play for all the marbles.”
“She’s tough, but we know she cares,” Kaylor said. “She might make us run and smile at the same time.”
Said Truesdale: “You have to command some respect while also being motherly.”
Pleasant Grove has had four head softball coaches since 2007, but the program maintains its success. Book’s co-coach is Russ Pettis, who is in his fourth year with the program. The other assistants include Korey Krueg and Shannon Gasper.
The coaches from both programs agree on another softball trend: They fear player burnout. Softball is a year-round grind, they say, and breaks should be mandatory.
“I absolutely worry about burnout because it happens and it’s not good,” Truesdale said.
Pettis’ daughter, Kobie, is a softball player at Argonaut High School and headed to Cal, so he understands the culture.
“I get it, the grind, the expectations, the pressure,” Pettis said.
Book and Pettis said they see a lot of heartache and hardship in their line of work. On the softball diamond, there’s a chance to experience focus and joy.
“We expect a lot of our players, just like Mary Jo does at Sheldon,” Book said. “But we all know if you’re having fun and working hard, this can be a great experience.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.