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For the Love of the Game 

In college softball's biggest year, Ferndale's Hailey Dolcini grabs her dream

click to enlarge Hailey Dolcini is interviewed on the field after the Texas Longhorns make history, becoming the first unseeded team to make it to the Women's College World Series championship round.

Photo by Olivia Ramirez/Texas Athletic Photo

Hailey Dolcini is interviewed on the field after the Texas Longhorns make history, becoming the first unseeded team to make it to the Women's College World Series championship round.

Hailey Dolcini sacrificed a lot while growing up in Ferndale. In grade school, she'd skip afternoon playdates with her friends to pitch to her dad in the driveway. When her classmates gathered for middle school dances, she was often traveling with her softball team, thinking missing those moments in darkened gyms was "the hardest thing in the world." In high school, afternoons were spent on the field, while most weekends passed in the car with her dad, driving 12 hours each way to out-of-area tournaments, often arriving back home not long before dawn on a Monday to catch a few hours of sleep and trudge off to school.

"It definitely got hard sometimes," says Dolcini, freshly returned to Ferndale from the Women's College World Series (WCWS) in Oklahoma City, where she helped lead her University of Texas Longhorns on a historic run to the game's biggest stage. "I wanted to make something of my career that I would be remembered by."

For those who didn't watch or aren't softball fans, it's hard to capture the magnitude of what Dolcini accomplished in the last weeks of her college career. She didn't break any statistical records and she and her Longhorns fell just short of the championship. But in what was undeniably the sport's biggest year — the WCWS smashed in-person attendance records, drew a million-plus television viewers per game and, for the first time, aired live on network TV — Dolcini became perhaps the most compelling character on a team filled with them and shattered all expectations, becoming the first unseeded team in a field of 64 to make it to the championship series.

And for many of those watching back home in the Eel River Valley, where Dolcini starred for four consecutive years at Fortuna High School, it meant all the more that their hometown girl stole the show not with otherworldly athletic gifts but grit, determination, stamina and a competitive ferocity that won hearts and minds. In the words of Longhorns' Coach Mike White, she was a "rock star," while reporters dubbed her a "warrior." Cat Osterman, a mythic figure in Texas softball who pitched in three Olympics and set a number of WCWS records, tweeted simply: "Legends are made in [the World Series] and Hailey Dolcini is mine," to which the national Little League association responded, "Ours too."

Talking to the Journal the day after she returned home, Dolcini says she's still processing the last month, calling it "indescribable." But she feels she was able to seize the opportunity and shine on the game's biggest stage — a bigger one than most thought possible a decade ago — because she knew she'd put in the work to prepare for the moment.

Dolcini says she started playing softball when she was 8 years old, recalling telling her dad she wanted to be a pitcher. Her dad responded by saying she couldn't have the responsibility of the ball in her hand and a team on her back until she showed him over the course of a year she would be dedicated to the sport. From there, day in and day out, she'd drag him to their driveway or Fireman's Park to pass hours pitching to him as he sat on a bucket.

"It spiraled from there," Dolcini says with a chuckle, recounting how her love of the game — and the competition — blossomed.

Fortuna High School softball coach Eric Helms, who's known Dolcini since she was about 10, recalls her showing up as a freshman and, just eight games into the season, taking over the team's starting pitching role from an established junior. She never looked back, leading the Huskies to a league championship while winning the league MVP that year, dual feats she would repeat in each of the next three years while amassing a mind-boggling resume including 1,100 strikeouts (24 of those in a single game against Cloverdale), as well as numerous no-hitters and perfect games.

"I've never seen an athlete work as hard or be as determined," Helms says. "She wasn't the most gifted athlete at a young age but it was her dedication, her perseverance, her work ethic, her willingness to go beyond where her body would allow that has made her successful."

Dolcini also made an impact off the field. Her sophomore year, Helms said a couple of her fellow students were diagnosed with cancer so the young pitcher turned her on-the-field success into a fundraiser. Dolcini says it all circled back to a conversation with her parents, Bobby and Kalynn Dolcini, in which they told her: "You're having all of this success and it's great but is there a way it can be used to benefit someone else?" Dolcini paired with the nonprofit Cookies for Kids' Cancer — she says she chose it because 100 percent of proceeds go to families needing assistance or research — to form Ks for Cancer. Dolcini says she'd take pledge sheets to local businesses and pass them around the stands during games, with folks promising $1 or more per strikeout she pitched. Eventually, she talked Fortuna and McKinleyville high schools into putting on a Ks for Kids' Cancer game, with all proceeds going to the organization. Ultimately, she raised more than $10,000 for the cause while still in high school.

(National Collegiate Athletics Association rules prohibited Dolcini from continuing the effort into college, though the issue clearly remains close to her heart as she wore a ribbon in her hair during games this year that says #RaeStrong, a nod of support to South Fork High School's Raelynn Hawkins, who is battling Hodgkin's Lymphoma.)

Out of high school, Dolcini attended University of California Riverside but left after a year, following the coach who had recruited her to Fresno State University. There, Dolcini starred in three seasons (including one shortened by COVID), culminating in her being named All Mountain West Conference pitcher of the year in 2021. After graduating with a degree in public health, Dolcini moved on to the University of Texas to pursue a master's degree in strategic communication and play out her last year of college eligibility in a "super senior" season.

While Texas softball had high hopes coming into the season, the team struggled under the weight of individual and collective expectations. Dolcini says she and the team captains wrestled over what to do — more team bonding activities or perhaps fewer? — and worked with a sports psychologist, but the inconsistency persisted. Finally, Dolcini says, she and her fellow seniors just decided things couldn't get worse and their senior years were passing them by, so they should work on enjoying the moment. Dolcini had put lot of mental energy her junior year toward mastering the mental aspects of high-stakes athletics, journaling and listening to sports psychology podcasts, while maintaining an "almost crazy" ritualized and superstitious pre-game routine. She began to let that go, instead playing hacky sack with teammates before games, focusing on finding joy and savoring the last weeks of her career.

Texas entered the WCWS tournament unseeded in a field of 64 teams and wasn't considered good enough to host a game at home. Instead, the team traveled to Seattle for regionals, where it beat Webber State University to force a best-of-seven series against the No. 11 Washington Huskies. Dolcini tossed all 21 innings in three games over two days, finishing the weekend with an ERA of 1.33 and 15 strikeouts. The team advanced to the super regional round, where it won two out of three against fourth-ranked University of Arkansas to advance, including a 129-pitch performance from Dolcini for a 3-1 win in a do-or-die second game. Texas then won four of its next five — including two brilliant performances from Dolcini — to advance to the final round against defending champion and top seeded Oklahoma University, which finished the year 59-3 and which many believe is the best team ever fielded in the sport's history.

A while after the final pitch was thrown, when Oklahoma's celebration had moved into the locker room but confetti still papered the field, Dolcini walked out on the field one last time. Delicately, she placed her cleats next to home plate before hugging teammate McKenzie Parker and walking off the field, leaving the cleats as a parting gift to the game that gave her so much.

"I can truly say I have zero regrets in the sense that I could not have trained any harder," Dolcini says. "It's a lot easier to hang up your cleats when you know you gave it your all."

Asked a few days later by the Journal if she might pitch again overseas or perhaps go for the 2024 Olympic team, Dolcini said no. Years of heavy pitch counts and 200-plus innings have taken their toll, she says. The WCWS tournament alone saw Dolcini toss almost 900 pitches across more than 59 innings, a workload she said was only possible with round-the-clock treatments, from massages, ice packs and clothing designed to stimulate muscle recovery to compression therapy boots and sleeping with an ultrasound machine attached to her pitching arm.

"The cleats are hung up," she says. "My body is done. It's just one of those things. When you know, you know."

As to the next chapter of her life, the 22 year old said she's not exactly sure what it holds. She's headed back to Austin, Texas, to finish that master's degree and serve as the team's graduate assistant coach next year. That could spark interest — and a career — in coaching, she says, but she's not sure. If nothing else, the role will earn Dolcini a free master's degree, she says, a final gift from the game.

What advice would Dolcini give kids across the North Coast and beyond who were inspired by her play in the WCWS and the Longhorns' improbable run?

She doesn't pause: "For me, the biggest thing is if you love the game, it'll love you right back. That's the one thing I can say, I poured everything I had into this game and it poured everything right back into me in this last year."

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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