After waiting most of her childhood, Danielle Williams is making her mark at Amador Valley
By DAVID KIEFER | Contributor
Of the big moments and turning points in Amador Valley High’s softball season, this didn’t seem like one of them. But in the evolution of Danielle Williams as a pitcher, this was big.
In a late-season game, Williams stepped out of the circle and shook off a pitch. That the pitch was called by her mother, Amador assistant coach Jenny Williams, was symbolic in a different sense. But from a softball perspective, this marked a big step for the Dons’ sophomore left-hander.
It was the first time in her two high school seasons that Williams had ever shaken off a pitch. It was an indication of confidence and control, and that she’s growing up.
“It means she’s thinking about attacking batters rather than throwing” head coach Teresa Borchard said.
Amador’s season has been one of growth, so when its ace pitcher shows a greater sense of maturation, it’s nothing new for the Dons, who weathered consecutive losses late in the East Bay Athletic League season before mounting a late-season surge that propelled them into the postseason with a serious case of momentum.
In many ways, Williams has mirrored the growth of her teammates.
When Williams arrived for tryouts last season, Borchard knew her well, but had never seen her pitch. Borchard and Jenny Williams had known each other for years. Their families had gone to the same church. Their children played rec softball together, and Jenny became Borchard’s assistant coach at Amador.
“I’ve known her since she was four,” Borchard said of Danielle. “I remember ‘D’ was always dirty, always playing. She was always practicing her pitching motion.”
Danielle wanted so much to emulate her sister that she would spontaneously pretend to pitch. “When she had her pitching lessons,” Danielle said, “I would try to imitate her.”
Danielle doesn’t recall why she began throwing left-handed, but suspects it was because Krista did. Their parents tried to get them to throw right-handed so that they could play shortstop. It didn’t work.
At home, they would take swings together in their garage, hitting off a tee or a pitching machine into a net. They always understood the need to be a well-rounded player rather than specialize as a pitcher or hitter.
Borchard purposefully had avoided watching Danielle pitch as a youth. She wanted to let Danielle’s skills developed organically. Therefore, when Williams came to tryouts as a freshman, Borchard kept an open mind.
Amador Valley had just completed the Johanna Grauer era. Grauer went 89-6 in four seasons with 1,050 strikeouts. In 2014, Grauer was the CalHiSports.com Ms. Softball State Player of the Year, going 27-0 with a 0.51 ERA and 290 strikeouts in 191 1/3 innings. She is now starring at UCLA.
Borchard was conscious of the pressure that Grauer’s successor would face, and it might be too much for a freshman. But Williams knew she didn’t need to be another Grauer.
“Not with the team I had behind me,” Williams said. “I knew they were there to make the outs.”
In 2014, the Grauer-led Dons were a powerhouse. But without her in 2015, there was expected to be a dropoff. The Dons, however, repeated as North Coast Section Division I champions. Williams went 24-3 with a 0.79 ERA and hit .532.
This year, Borchard was again a bit skeptical. The team wasn’t as experienced, with fewer players than usual involved in travel ball. And, they were nice. Too nice. In most places — like the classroom or the library — that would be a good thing. But on the softball field …
A turning point came in early April, when Amador Valley traveled to Orange County’s Michelle Carew Classic, the most prestigious tournament on the West Coast.
On the drive south, Borchard hammered the message of vocal leadership. During the tournament, she did it again. The Dons won twice before losing to Orange Lutheran, and that created another teaching moment.
The day after the loss “we talked about the arrow,” Borchard said. “An arrow can’t be launched until it’s pulled backwards. That’s the moment right before something special happens.”
The meaning was this: It’s OK to go through adversity, because that is what makes you stronger.
“You have to pick each other up when you go through hard times,” Borchard said. “It’s important to embrace the struggle.”
Those lessons took on greater meaning late in the EBAL season. The Dons were cruising with a 10-0 league record when they were humbled by back-to-back one-run losses to Livermore and Carondelet-Concord.
Williams said many of the players got some extra help from Neil Bellow, an Amador Valley ceramics teacher. Bellow, who practices meditation and also is a fan of the team, met with a group in his classroom and gave them advice about the need to stay relaxed, and instructed them on breathing techniques that could calm them in anxious situations.
“We needed a boost going into NCS,” Borchard said. “I think it was good. It was a wakeup call.”
Amador Valley recovered to beat Granada-Livemore to create a regular-season showdown with first-place Foothill-Pleasanton. Amador’s 3-1 victory forced its rival to share the EBAL championship at 12-2.
Williams, who has committed to Missouri, finished the regular season 20-4, with a 0.40 ERA and hit .477. More than can be illustrated in the stats, was the measure of how much Williams improved. Her control and ability to change speeds are big weapons, but she was helped by her maturation.
“Emotionally, and with her confidence, she’s grown through the roof,” Borchard said. “The end of their sophomore year is usually when you see kids blossom. You’ve not seen the best of her yet.”
Borchard had a good idea of what to expect from Williams this year. But she did not expect to discover that “this is the best hitting team I’ve ever had,” she said. “All up and down the lineup, we can produce.”
Senior rightfielder Jillian Pluschkell, who has signed a letter of intent with Cal Poly, is one of only three seniors. Among the Dons’ standout juniors are catcher Courtney Dinelli, outfielder Jessica Emde and shortstop Hannah Myers.
“Last year, I don’t think we felt pressure, because people didn’t expect us to do anything,” Borchard said. “That feels different than this year. But our players just want to prove themselves. They want to show how hard they’ve worked. They deserve to be where they’re at, and they want to be the best.”
As for Williams, she truly is in her element.
“Softball has always been a big part of my life,” she said. “When I want to go out and have fun, that’s what I do.”