One of the most decorated athletes in Ceres High School history had a goal and it wasn’t to add to her personal trophy case, a collection that now includes Cal-Hi Sports’ Ms. Softball 2016.
No, Nicole Bates’ objective was to end the softball team’s 21-year drought at the Sac-Joaquin Section level.
She did just that with a near-perfect performance in the postseason, guiding the under-Dogs to a Division III title. Bates was 6 for 7 in the final series against Benicia and triggered an emotional celebration with a double play at the finish.
The Washington-bound shortstop also homered twice in an upset victory over second-seeded Oakdale in the quarterfinal as Ceres, led by outgoing coach Angela Durossette, hoisted its first section banner since 1995.
Each member of the Western Athletic Conference co-champions took her turn clutching and posing with the blue felt keepsake.
In a postgame interview, with tears in her eyes, Bates reinforced her season-long motivation: to win as a team, not as an individual.
“The whole thing (for being Ms. Softball) is because of our team,” Bates told Cal-Hi Sports. “It was a big accomplishment for us to win that title, and it was a lot of fun. A lot of the girls I’ve been playing with since we were a very young age. Our chemistry was really good, and that really helped us out.”
The Bulldogs began to click during a spring break trip to Hawaii, where they pummeled the island competition by a combined 41-4 in three games. That bond tightened as Ceres shared the WAC crown with Los Banos and remained anchored among The Modesto Bee’s top five large schools.
When the postseason arrived, Bates said Ceres was hitting its stride, eventually rising above a field that included state-ranked and defending D-III and state champion East Union.
“Sis” was the catalyst, and she’s been flooded with individual awards of the highest regard in the weeks since.
Bates was The Bee’s All-District Softball Player of the Year, an accolade that recognizes individual talent, postseason performance and leadership. She won the award amid a sea of worthy contenders: Merced’s Madilyn Nickles, the Gatorade National Player of the Year; and Oakdale twins Kindra and Maddi Hackbarth, the Mustangs’ heart and soul the last four years.
Cal-Hi Sports shared the same affinity for the talent in the Stanislaus District, as witnessed by its finalists for the coveted Ms. Softball award. Among the candidates were Bates and the UCLA-bound Nickles, future opponents in the Pacific-12 Conference.
While Nickles garnered a major national award, Cal-Hi Sports selected Bates as Ms. Softball for her ability to lead Ceres to a section championship while being an established top-10 recruit in her class, according to FloSoftball.com.
Bates is the first player from the Stanislaus District to win the state award and the first from the section since Katie Cotta of Linden in 2005.
“It’s hard to believe,” Bates said.
Well, not when you consider the numbers. Bates hit a career-best .571 during her senior season with 60 hits, 33 RBIs, five home runs and just three strikeouts in 113 plate appearances. She could slap, bunt and hit for power at the top of the Bulldogs’ lineup.
Her statistics over a four-year varsity career rank among the state’s best. She hit .512 in 114 games and finished in the state’s top 10 in all-time hits (205) and in the top five in runs (171).
Ceres finished 23-5 and No. 3 in the final Division III state rankings.
Nickles didn’t go away empty-handed. She was named Cal-Hi Sports’ large-school Player of the Year. Nickles hit .552 with eight home runs and 27 RBIs and led the section in strikeouts with 308 in her senior year. Nickles carried the Bears to the Division I quarterfinals while playing with a fractured rib.
“Madilyn has been fun to play with when that’s happened,” Bates told Cal-Hi Sports. “She’s a great player. She can do it all.”