Travel-ball teammates as third graders, Isabella Gonzales, Kaileah Johannsen and Kaylee MacDannald wanted to make their final season together at Manteca High a memorable one.
The coronavirus crisis shattered their hopes of bringing glory to the championship-starved program.
“It kind of sucked for that to be my last softball season for high school and in California,” said Johannsen, who is headed for Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma. “We were getting to know all the freshmen coming in and we were expecting a lot for this season, but I still wouldn't take back the couple of games we had with each other.”
They're the three remnants of the 2017 Buffaloes team that enjoyed its finest season in two decades, making a rare appearance in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs. They were then denied postseason berths the following two years, losing out on tiebreaking coinflips after battling through the gauntlet of the Valley Oak League.
Bolstered by fellow seniors Alyssah and Alannah Harnden and up-and-coming underclassmen, Manteca's veteran trio believed this was the year for the team's luck to turn as it blasted its way to a 5-1-1 start. The season ended with a 10-8 victory at Escalon on March 11, before the senior class could help break in the new softball field on campus.
“We were looking forward to earning a playoff spot,” MacDannald said. “We definitely had the ability to do it and we worked so hard for it. It was probably one of the best teams Manteca High has ever had.
“It's very disappointing to lose what we had worked so hard for the past four years.”
The relationships forged with the other fourth-year varsity players go beyond these past four years.
MacDannald and Gonzales began playing softball when they were 9, joining the Lady Cyclones coached by Johannsen's dad. After two years, Johannsen moved on to another club and eventually reunited with them in high school.
Gonzales and MacDannald remained attached at the hip, going from the Lady Cyclones to USA Elite.
“I have not played on one softball team without Kaylee MacDannald,” Gonzales said. “I've always played with her next to me, whether she's at shortstop or first base and I'm at second base or in the outfield where we played in travel ball.”
MacDannald said they're paired perfectly no matter where they were positioned on the field.
“At first, Bella was super shy when we were younger, and I've always been outgoing,” she said. “She's quiet, but she brings the quiet out of me while I bring the energy out of her, so it works so well together. We just bring out the best in each other.”
All three are well accomplished for the Buffs. Gonzales was named to the All-VOL defensive team last season and is proud to have finally worked her way into the lineup as a regular starter. She ended her senior campaign as the team's co-leader in RBIs with 10 while sporting a .273 batting average.
MacDannald is a two-time All-VOL second-team selection, making the first team in 2019. She was on her way to another stellar season, ending with a .500 average, two homers, 12 runs and eight steals — all team-highs. She was threatening many of the program records tabulated on MaxPreps, but even with the shortened senior season she's No. 1 on the list with career steals (20), base on balls (43) and second in runs scored (91).
Johannsen made the All-VOL second team her sophomore year and was also climbing into Manteca's top-10 lists in several offensive categories. She was also raking in before the sudden end to the season, hitting .471. A catcher for most of her career, she was moved to third base in her final go-around at Manteca to help fill a need at that spot. That allowed for her to play alongside shortstop MacDannald and second baseman Gonzales from a different perspective.
“I played third base a long time ago, so it was kind of fun to do something different,” Johannsen said. “I was having a great time with it. It was pretty fun to play next to (MacDannald and Gonzales) in the infield. I felt like we bonded even more.”
And now, they're preparing to go their separate ways. MacDannald and Johannsen may cross paths again in the near future as players on opposing teams — the former signed with College of Idaho last November, and their schools compete at the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics level. Johannsen said she hopes to coach softball in the future and plans on becoming a teacher.
For Gonzales, this was supposed to be her farewell tour on the diamond. When USA Elite disbanded, MacDannald found a new home with the OC Batbusters last summer while Gonzales skipped the travel-ball circuit and decided to end her playing career as a Buffalo. She's headed to CSU Monterey Bay and will study marine biology.
“I was really heartbroken,” Gonzales said. “This was my last run for softball and I wanted to play it out with people I've been playing with for a really long time. Not being able to play this season really hurt. I know Kaylee and Kai are going to do really good things and I know we'll stay connected in the future.”