From ballers to belles: Merced softball puts playoffs before prom

Bart McAfee is bending his own rule on Saturday.

After each road game, Merced softball players know McAfee's rule that everybody rides home with the team.

It's a rule McAfee instituted after his first season when he noticed only seven or eight players were riding home on the bus after the game.

"We win as a team and we lose as a team," shortstop Ashley Heath-Smith said. "We all ride home together. We all know the rule."

McAfee is making an exception on Saturday for a good reason.

The Bears will open up the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs against Davis at the Sacramento Softball Complex at 9 a.m.

If Merced wins it will have another game at 2 p.m.

Then as many as eight players will race home with their parents and get ready for Merced High's prom later that night.

"We're all excited about prom, don't get me wrong," Heath-Smith said. "But we've all worked so hard to get where we're at. Softball is our top priority. I'll tell you this: If we win both games on Saturday, it'll be the best prom ever."

As the season wound down and it became clear Merced would make the playoffs, it didn't take long for the girls to realize the playoffs would conflict with prom.

"To be honest we were upset about the situation," third baseman Hillarie Elmore said. "It's my senior prom. It's my senior year. But with us coming this far in softball, it wasn't really an issue. Our entire team put softball before the prom."

Still, it put some of the girls in some sticky situations.

Senior catcher Tessa Hanson already had a date for the prom, but she quickly realized there was no way she was going to miss the softball playoffs.

She did the noble thing and allowed her date to find somebody else to take.

"I'm sorry softball came first, but he understands because he plays sports, too," Hanson said. "I told him I didn't want to ruin his prom by making him wait for me."

You won't find the girls talking about prom in front of McAfee.

They know better.

McAfee doesn't want to hear about their dresses, their nails or how they're going to do their hair. He only wants to hear about softball. He sat his team down toward the end of the year and addressed the possible prom conflict.

"We talked to them," McAfee said. "We let them know if you're not going to stay for the second game we don't want you to go with us. They understood. I haven't heard a word since."

However, McAfee knows the position the girls are in. He was once a senior in high school, too.

"When I went to my prom, we were playing in the baseball playoffs in Lodi," McAfee said. "Fortunately for me, the girl I went with, her father owned a couple planes. He flew a couple of us back for prom.

"We run into this stuff more in the spring. You run into prom or grad night. Heck, you even run into graduation if you're a track person.

"The players have put a lot of time into softball. Our seniors have put in four years. I haven't heard anything from our seniors. They all want to play."

The Bears know they have to be focused on softball or there will be no rush to get home.

The first round is single elimination. If they lose to Davis their season is over.

If they win, they advance to the double-elimination part of the tournament.

"We'll worry about prom after softball," Elmore said. "We don't want to go this far and then lose in the first round of the playoffs."

If the Bears advance to a second game, it should end around 4 p.m.

Then the race home begins.

The school is allowing the players to ride home with their parents if they have signed a transportation slip.

It's unlikely the players will be able to catch the buses leaving Merced High for the prom at 7:30 p.m., so the school is allowing the parents to drive the players to the prom, which is being held at The Vista at Red Rock Ranch on Highway 140.

Hanson joked the players should show up at prom in their softball uniforms.

"A lot of us are going to get ready together," Elmore said. "I was going to get my nails done. I was going to have my hair and makeup done professionally. Now, I'm going to shower quickly and blow dry my hair and hope to God it looks cute.

"It normally takes me a long time to get ready. It'll be interesting to see how I look."

The Bears are hoping it'll be a long day.

"There's a way for us to get there and still have a great time," Heath-Smith said. "We'll just be late. That's just how it is. You have to make sacrifices, but we all want to play."