By Ray Hamill — Wednesday can’t come soon enough for North Coast sports fans, as Humboldt County native Hailey Dolcini gets set to lead the Texas Longhorns into the WCWS Championship Series.
It has been a whirlwind journey the last few weeks for Dolcini and the Longhorns — who have become the first unseeded team to make the championship series — and local sports fans have been following enthusiastically every step of the way and taking a lot of pride in the impact Dolcini has had.
“Obviously this is unprecedented,” longtime local softball coach Maggie White said. “I have referred to her as the GOAT of softball players in Humboldt County. She’s incredible.”
Dolcini has upped her game in the playoffs and has led Texas to six victories over the past three weeks, including an impressive five over top-11 teams in the nation.
“I mean, it’s just amazing how far she’s come and how her hard work has paid off,” McKinleyville head coach Shanna McCracken said. “I think she’s become a bigger role model for players all over the world, and not just here in Humboldt County.”
Humboldt Fastpitch Association founder and president Kelly Wolfe Helms got emotional and close to tears on Tuesday afternoon while talking about Dolcini’s journey and what it means to the local community.
“It’s just unbelievable, I’m so excited for her,” she said. “We just feel so privileged and lucky to be a part of her journey and her past.”
Wolfe Helm’s husband, Eric, coached Dolcini for four years in high school and flew out to watch her play at the Super Regionals in Arkansas two weeks ago.
“This young woman has it all. I couldn’t be prouder as a coach, a friend and a community member,” he said. “It’s so awesome now to see her competing for the biggest prize in college softball.”
The Longhorns have upset the odds at the WCWS, where they have won four of their five games to reach the championship series against defending champion Oklahoma.
Dolcini is 3-1 in those games and has been in commanding form in the circle against the best college players in the country.
And one former teammate has been following her success closely.
“I think she’s been throwing really well and she’s got a good team behind her,” said her former catcher at Fortuna, Jenna Christiansen, who keeps in contact with her old teammate.
Christiansen, who played four years at McPherson College in Kansas, is an assistant coach at Eureka High and has seen first hand Dolcini’s influence on the game locally.
“I really think it inspires young athletes to see what they can achieve if they put their mind to it,” she said.
White, who coached 25 years at College of the Redwoods before stepping down last year, first saw Dolcini pitch as an eighth grader and knew immediately she had the talent to play at a top level.
“She was pretty good,” White said with a chuckle. “I knew I wasn’t going to get her. That was my first impression. She was going to go places.”
Dolcini joined UC Riverside out of high school and transferred to Fresno State after her freshman season, playing three seasons for the Bulldogs and impressing each year.
She transferred to Texas for her “super senior” season, and while it took her a while to settle into the new surroundings, she has been a force for the Longhorns over the second half of the season and in particular during the team’s breakthrough playoff run.
“Really it’s a testament to hard work, dedication, commitment, perseverance and doing the right thing at the right time,” Wolfe Helms said. “And being willing to be open to change.”
Wolfe Helms believes Dolcini is influencing a whole new generation of softball players in the county.
“It’s energizing and inspiring,” she said.
Humboldt County has long enjoyed a big tradition in softball, dating back to the 1970s when Hoopa Valley won the area’s first North Coast Section titles in the sport, and carrying on through the very successful national title winning days at Humboldt State (now Cal Poly Humboldt) under legendary coach Frank Cheek.
But no player has ever reached the heights that Dolcini has, and, coincidentally or not, the area has never seen as many young girls playing the sport.
A record 520 girls signed up to play Humboldt Fastpitch Softball this spring, and fittingly they’ll play their season finale tournament this weekend, in the same week as Dolcini pitches in the WCWS Championship Series.
“Humboldt Fastpitch is what started it for her,” White said. “With Humboldt Fastpitch, that’s when she was able to see she could compete outside of Humboldt County.”
White recalls hearing from a friend of hers, Darci Brownell, the longtime head coach at Sierra College, when she first saw Dolcini competing in a high school tournament in the Sacramento area.
“She called me up and said ‘where is Fortuna?’ And I said, ‘oh yeah, you’re watching Dolcini, she’s good,’” White recalled. “She was there recruiting and she couldn’t believe her eyes.”
Brownell isn’t the only one who remembers how good Dolcini looked at the time.
“I know coaching against her was never fun,” McCracken said with a chuckle. “She was definitely a competitor.”
The Fortuna Huskies will host a viewing party on a big screen on campus for the championship series, with doors opening half an hour before each game.
And many sports fans all around the North Coast will be tuning in wherever they are, as the local softball GOAT makes more history.
“It’s just super inspiring,” Wolfe Helms said. “I’m kind of in awe of it all.”
Game one is set for Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.