Maria Carrillo athletics: A girl for all seasons

Photo by CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat Maria Carrillo's Mikaela Francis makes the throw to first after fielding a grounder against Santa Rosa on Thursday.

Photo by CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Maria Carrillo’s Mikaela Francis makes the throw to first after fielding a grounder against Santa Rosa on Thursday.

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Mikaela Francis’ family doesn’t need a calendar to mark the change of seasons, or a thermometer or even a window. One glance at the laundry hamper is all it takes. The volleyball uniform signals autumn, the basketball uniform points to winter, the softball uniform means spring.

“There were times I was just like, ‘I want to quit it all. I just want to be a normal kid that gets to go home after school and hang out with her friends,’” Francis said recently, taking a moment away from softball practice at the Maria Carrillo diamond. “But then I realized like, this is the time in my life where I can do this and experiment with all these different passions and do everything. Because once you finish high school, it’s grow-up time. And I want to be a kid for as long as possible.”

Now is the time for playing games — and Francis does that very, very well. She is that rarest of high school athlete, a four-year varsity starter in three different sports.

Nowhere does she shine quite like the softball diamond.

A first-team All-Empire selection as a junior last year, Francis seems to be well on her way to her fourth All-North Bay League designation. She plays shortstop dependably — Maria Carrillo coach Lonnie Harwell moved her there to fill a need, though she is a more natural corner infielder — and has one of the highest batting averages on the Pumas. But what really sets her apart is her power.

“The best feeling in the world to me is when I hit a home run,” she said. “Softball is the hardest sport that there is. It’s been scientifically proven. I get in debates with boys at my school about it all the time. My favorite quote: It’s a round ball, and a round bat, and you have to hit it square. And when you can do that consistently, it’s a beautiful thing.”

It would be an exaggeration to say that Francis knocks the cover off the ball, but only a slight one. Harwell saw her hit a drive to center so hard last season that she warped the ball.

“She put it out of round,” he said.

The game has always come easily to Francis. She started hitting with a Wiffle bat when she was 3 or 4, and began playing organized softball at 6. Along the way, she added other sports. A 6-footer, Francis was a three-time all-league selection as a middle hitter for the Pumas volleyball team, and a 2012-13 All-NBL pick for the basketball team.

“The best way I can sum it up is the head volleyball coach at Sonoma State (Bear Grassl) said he’d take her in a minute to play college volleyball,” Maria Carrillo coach Jeff Nielsen said. “There’s that much potential there if she chose to continue down that road.”

At times, Francis’ versatility creates some scheduling issues. Maria Carrillo consistently makes it to the CIF state tournament in volleyball, and usually makes a pretty deep playoff run in hoops, too. So one season tends to bleed into the next. Francis is used to missing the first few basketball games of the year and a softball game or two, as well as valuable early-season practice time.

Harwell has always excused these absences.

“Softball is a part of the high school experience. It’s not THE high school experience,” he said. “… I mean, for these girls, prom is as important as the championship. So you have to have that balance.”

Some people have tried to convince Francis that she is hurting herself by not focusing on one game. That never made sense to her. She believes she has benefitted athletically from playing three sports. Volleyball improves her vertical leap for basketball. Basketball gets her in fantastic shape for softball. The hand-eye coordination required of softball helps her in volleyball. And then there is the mental edge she gets.

“You see so many kids who play one sport their entire life, and by their sophomore year they’re burned out. They’re done with that sport,” Francis said. “And I’ve never had that happen to me. Like, I’m super sad already that I haven’t played basketball in a month.”

Granted, it hasn’t always been easy for Francis to keep so many balls in the air. It was worst when she was a freshman. She played three sports at Carrillo, played for a travel basketball team and a travel soccer team, and practiced with a club volleyball team — all while taking honors classes.

“My staff, we’d talk about it: How does she do it all?” Nielsen said. “She’s been a great student and an amazing player. And you’d never know all the things she has to do. One thing is her boundless energy. It’s got to be there the minute she opens her eyes, like, ‘Let’s attack the day.’ It’s a great personality trait to have.”

Francis gave up some activities along the way, including the more demanding course work. She’s a good student with a 3.4 GPA, but has shied away from AP and honors classes because she knows she can’t give them the time they require.

Recently, though, Francis bumped up her activities another notch. She and teammate Brittney Veler tried out for and made an elite softball club team, the American Pastime Gold, last summer. One small complication: It’s based in Los Angeles. They played in four tournaments in January and February, driving south right after school on Friday and returning sometime around 3 a.m. on Sunday night. Sometimes Francis had to bounce back for Monday basketball games.

“It got tiring,” she said. “But I saw it as: This is just preparing me for when I’m in college, and I have that road trip and I have an 8 a.m. lecture the day I get back.”

Francis is convinced that the added exposure of playing for the Gold is what landed her a softball scholarship to Cal State Fullerton. She will play for the Titans this fall.

Francis is a sunny personality and a supportive teammate. But she admits to having a ruthlessly competitive side, too, partly the result of being raised in a family where “everything and anything is a competition.” Her brother, Michael, was a standout baseball and basketball player for the Pumas and her paternal grandfather, Mike Francis, is in the Montgomery High athletic hall of fame.

“My first under-10 softball tournament ever, we got second place in the championship, and I remember being so upset, and so heartbroken,” Mikaela said. “I hate to settle. And in many instances I refuse to settle, because settling never makes you happy.”

Francis refused to settle for a single sport at Carrillo, and it has made her — and Pumas sports fans — happy for 12 consecutive seasons.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

 

Comments are closed.