April Finazzo, the long-running softball coach from Citrus Valley High School, has to admit her little ritual. Whenever she gets word of a ballplayer on her campus, it’s the usual questions.
“Do you play travel ball?”
“How much experience do you have?”
Lots of kids play softball.
When freshman Ella Nadeau walked into Finazzo’s classroom sometime at mid-school year in 2017-18, little did she know what was about to take place.
“It was right before Christmas break,” said Finazzo.
Already on that Lady Blackhawks’ roster was a stellar, all-around player, Mika Lee — another freshman.
Here are a couple of lefty, slap-hitters that play multiple positions.
When those two players got together — Lee playing for the Corona Angels, Nadeau playing for the California Cruisers — their first queries came down to this:
“They tried to figure out if they’d played each other.”
Finazzo, by that time, was probably salivating over her lineup that 2018 season.
That Nadeau is heading for Stanford University and Lee for cross-bay UC Berkeley is, perhaps, one of the more amazing moments in Lady Blackhawks’ softball history.
The Golden Bears and the Lady Cardinal are, to Bay Area sports fans, what Los Angeles’ USC-UCLA rivalry is to SoCal.
“Cal is supposed to be getting a new softball stadium,” said Finazzo. “When they play Stanford, oh my gosh … I am so up there.”
Here’s the killer, and it’s a big one: Finazzo, whose team was 9-3 when last spring’s COVID-19 pandemic broke out, never got a chance to see just how far the Lady Blackhawks would go.
While Lee and Nadeau were the top two hitters in Finazzo’s lineup, there’s no telling how deep of a CIF-Southern Section playoff run that Citrus Valley would take. This year is another question.
“I’m still not going to give up hope,” said Finazzo, who has a trio of pitchers who can take the circle at any time.
Nadeau, the team’s shortstop, is one of those pitchers.
When she takes the circle, Lee can take over at shortstop. Or she can catch. Or take center field.
“Whatever position Mika plays,” said Finazzo, “she takes control of that position. She’s smart and she takes charge.”
The fallout of two sensation players missing virtually a season and a half of prep play is a real killer.
Citrus Valley has placed softball players into the collegiate mix long before this.
Zoe Richards, for instance, will get another crack at her senior season at Cal State Fullerton. COVID-19 wiped out last season, so the NCAA is giving 2020 seniors a crack at 2021.
Her sister, Kailey, along with Stephanie Ortega, have long since played at Bethune-Cookman, way down in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Finazzo rattled off those names like they were her own daughters.
“Jackie Chairez was at Iowa State, Ashlyn Morris at Iona, Maxine Ortega at Columbia.”
Columbia? Ivy League? Grades?
Speaking of grades, let’s get back to Lee and Nadeau.
No one gets into Stanford with so-so grades. Berkeley, too, is considered a high-ranking academic institution.
(One unnamed area athlete was set for Stanford, but fell a little short academically. Wound up at UCLA.)
Study hall, says Finazzo, “is incredible to watch.
“When those two have a chance to study, they’ll study hard. If there’s just 20 minutes left in study hall, they really get into it.”
It’s strong insight on just how Nadeau and Lee got onto the pathway of Stanford and Cal. Top grades can move most prep students only so far; an athletics career can seal a lot of deals.
Said Finazzo: “They take everything to the next level — studying and softball. You know they’re going to attack it.”
If they somehow get caught up on their work and there’s time left in study hall, they tutor Lady Blackhawk teammates. “They’re my No. 1 peer tutors,” said Finazzo.
“The other girls feel comfortable with time because (Lee and Nadeau) are so approachable.”
Speaking of the Richards girls, plus Chairez, Morris and the Ortegas, there was another name to add onto that Citrus Valley list of NCAA Division I softballers.
“You can’t forget Taylor Troost,” said Finazzo, noting the ex-Citrus Valley pitcher that went to Cal State Northridge.
Hearkening back to that 2017, pre-Christmas break day when Nadeau entered Finazzo’s classroom, the Lady Blackhawks’ coach put in a quick call to the campus counselors’ office.
“She needs to be in my sixth period P.E. class,” said Finazzo.
Ella, she said, “fit in really well. Mika was already a freshman. That was a really strong group.”