There are 109 miles between Atascadero and Salinas, but it feels more like 900.
The flat stretch of Highway 101, known as the Salinas River Valley Highway, does not offer much in terms of water views, nor does it twist and turn like the picturesque PCH.
The road plods along on a parallel course with the coastline, but 30 miles inland, devoid of little else than a look into California’s infrastructure of yesteryear and the drought crisis of today.
The journey past rusted oilrigs and vast farmland is nothing more than a means to an end; the quickest and most reliable way to get from Point A to Point B.
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For Sally Bowles, the two-hour drive is a daily necessity.
The Atascadero High softball standout makes the sojourn each summer with longtime teammate and friend Kaila Herzig as well as a willing parent — both are just sophomores — so they can continue playing for the Salinas Storm travel ball team.
“It’s a lot,” Bowles said of the commute, “but it’s worth it.”
Judging by the season she put together for the Greyhounds both as a pitcher and hitter, the added mileage is paying off.
Bowles is this year’s Tribune County Player of the Year after compiling a 16-4 record and 1.68 ERA in the circle to go along with a .407 batting average with 23 runs and 22 RBI at the plate.
“She was fantastic,” Arroyo Grande coach John Welch said of Bowles, one of four sophomores who helped lead Atascadero to a 23-win season. “That’s someone we’re going to have to reckon with for the next few years.”
Feshman role player to sophomore star
Bowles is the sixth 10th grader to win the award and the first since fellow Greyhound Jill Johnston in 2010. She is also part of a strong sophomore class across the North County that includes teammates Herzig and Allison Reagan, Paso Robles’ Chloe Kearns and Dakota Rodriguez, and another Salinas Storm pitcher, Coast Union left-hander Ellie Magnuson.
Herzig launched a school-record six home runs and drove in a county-leading 29 RBI. Reagan wasn’t far behind with five homers, 25 RBI and a .438 average. Kerns and Rodriguez both hit over .400 with multiple home runs, and Magnuson led the Broncos to an undefeated Coast Valley League championship.
But it was Bowles who consistently brought it from both sides of the ball for an Atascadero squad that defeated every county team it played by an average score of 9-2.
“As a pitcher, if you have an inning that’s not that good, you always know your team can come back and get those runs,” Bowles said of the potent Greyhounds offense that collectively hit .379 with 22 home runs. “It’s more relaxing than anything.”
Bowles hit third in the lineup, tying with Herzig for the team lead in hits with 35 in 86 at-bats. She also accounted for 125 of the team’s 183 innings pitched, toeing the rubber for every meaningful game and reaching the strikeout century mark with exactly 100.
“It can get tiring, but there are breaks in between,” she said of the workload. “For me, it’s the passion. I don’t want to see anyone else out there on the mound. I want to be the one out there.”
Bowles was an everyday starter at first base as Atascadero went 9-15 her freshman season. She appeared in nine games as a pitcher, but the Greyhounds won just two of those contests.
“You could see she was talented and that she could throw well, but she didn’t quite know how to pitch,” Atascadero coach Darin Traverso said. “They’d hit her hard the second and third time through the lineup.”
Traverso said Bowles’ biggest improvement between her first and second year came between the ears.
“She’s starting to mature into that role,” he said. “When she walked someone or gave up a hit this year, she was much more emotionally strong.”
Bowles said to keep her focus and not get flustered, she reminds herself to just enjoy the game she’s been playing since the age of 4.
“My freshman year and that summer, I just was stressed,” she said. “I felt like I wasn’t doing good, so I had to remember that it’s just softball.
“It still gets frustrating (giving up a hit), but I’m getting better at not letting it get to me. You’ve got to realize that people are going to hit off of you. Everybody is hittable, and you can strike everyone out.”
The newfound mental toughness was tested in earnest April 11, when the Greyhounds hosted Righetti, which came to Atascadero on an 18-game league winning streak and as the defending CIF-Southern Section Division 3 champion.
The potent Warriors’ offense tagged Bowles for nine hits, but the sophomore held her ground with four strikeouts and a knack for getting the big out. Even with Atascadero up 3-0 in the final inning, when Gladys Esparza hit a leadoff homer, PAC 7 MVP Breanna Timmons followed with a double and her infield flubbed an easy grounder that would have been the final out, Bowles didn’t blink.
She got the next batter to ground out to third base to end the game and give the Greyhounds sole possession of first place in league.
“She’s still improving,” Traverso said. “By the time she’s a senior, she’ll really be able to throw the ball by people.”
Room — and a desire — to improve
Bowles’ fastball isn’t dominant yet, but she mixes it with a pair of pitches she’s been perfecting since the age of 10 — a drop ball and a curve — and her full windup and final snap of the wrist gets the ball on the hitter quickly from 43 feet away.
“When I reached 9 or 10, it just clicked that this was really what I was supposed to be doing,” she said. “My passion is to be out here on the softball field.”
For as great as Bowles and the Greyhounds were for the majority of the season, riding an 11-game win streak into a May 13 rematch at Righetti, the success began to fade at the most crucial part of the season.
Starters Sarah Wulff, Keara Blodgett and McKenzi Etchison were all battling injuries and the rest of the team was starting to feel the wear and tear of a 30-game season.
Plus, Bowles admitted there was some overconfidence in the dugout when Atascadero traveled to Orcutt to face the Warriors with a chance to win the PAC 7 outright if it won.
A handful of early errors and some key hits from the experienced Righetti lineup quelled that notion in a 10-3 defeat.
Atascadero fell at home two days later, 11-7, to a lesser Pioneer Valley squad to end any hope of even sharing the league title with the Warriors and relegating the Greyhounds to second place.
The skid continued in a 9-2 loss to Whittier California in the opening round of the Southern Section Division 3 playoffs.
“I don’t want to say it was a loss of interest, but I think we started off quick and softball is a game of ups and downs,” Bowles said. “We just went down.
“I’ve been working on always keeping a smile on my face, but it’s hard when you put a lot of work in and it doesn’t work out.”
She didn’t have much time to sulk and reflect, with the travel ball season starting just after school let out for the summer, but she expects to come back next season ready to make this season’s early success last longer.
“As far as myself goes next year, I want to be 10 times better than I was this year,” she said. “As a team, I want to get a CIF championship.”
Bowles said the path to improvement lies nowhere else but on the diamond.
“You work hard to get what you want,” she said. “That win is what I want, so I’m always working hard.”
So when most of her teenage cohorts can be found beachside these next few months, she’ll have a bat in her hands instead of a blanket.
To get her through the dog days of summer, Bowles said she remembers advice gathered at a youth camp from her favorite softball player, Monica Abbott.
Abbott was a stellar pitcher at the University of Tennessee and at the Beijing Olympics for Team USA.
Prior to that, the Santa Cruz native attended North Salinas High and played for the same Salinas Storm travel team Bowles has dedicated her past three summers to.
“She said that it stinks when your friends are out doing stuff and you’re just playing softball,” Bowles said. “But to take that feeling of missing out on other things and use it (to drive you), because that time pays off.”
Another road with no shortcuts or perks, aside from where it takes you.
All-County Softball teams
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Sally Bowles, Atascadero, P, Sophomore
Corinne Barto, Templeton, P, Senior
Hope Goodall, Nipomo, P/OF, Freshman
Kaila Herzig, Atascadero, SS, Sophomore
Emma Hotaling, Morro Bay, OF, Freshman
Chloe Kerns, Paso Robles, SS, Sophomore
M’Lynn Martin, Paso Robles, C, Senior
Marissa Piatt, San Luis Obispo, SS, Freshman
Ashley Ruiz, Nipomo, 3B, Senior
Ashley Stevens, Templeton, P/C/2B, Senior
Marissa Tabares, Morro Bay, P, Senior
Sarah Wulff, Atascadero, 3B, Freshman
Kiani Alba, Templeton SS, Senior
Delaney Cline, Paso Robles, 1B, Senior
McKenzi Etchison, Atascadero, OF, Junior
Nique Mack, Atascadero, OF, Senior
Ellie Magnuson, Coast Union, P, Sophomore
Madelynn Martinez, Morro Bay, 1B, Senior
Ally Reagan, Atascadero, C/DH, Sophomore
Dakota Rodriguez, Paso Robles, P/OF, Sophomore
Bri Sa, Nipomo, P, Freshman
Alexcia Silva, Arroyo Grande, C, Junior
Mariah Solis, Arroyo Grande, 1B, Senior
Arroyo Grande — Rebekah Hernandez, P, Junior; Samantha Oliver, OF, Freshman
Atascadero — Keara Blodgett, 2B, Senior;
Coast Union — Cristina Plasencia, C, Senior
Coastal Christian — Roni Garrison, P, Junior
Mission Prep — Emily Ezzo, OF, Senior.
Morro Bay — Kendall Schemmer, OF, Freshman
Nipomo — Destiny Fryckman, OF, Senior; Saundra Renner, OF, Junior; Anahi Vences, C, Junior
Paso Robles — Danielle Lambert, 3B, Junior
San Luis Obispo — Hanna Murphy, OF, Sophomore
THE TRIBUNE PLAYERS OF THE YEAR
1981 Cari Furness Arroyo Grande Sr.
1982 Missy Silacci Morro Bay So.
1983 Christy Fiscalini Coast Union Sr.
1984 Missy Silacci Morro Bay Sr.
1985 Lori Atwell Morro Bay Sr.
1986 Debbie Sligh Atascadero Sr.
1987 Mary Lou Branham Atascadero Sr.
1988 Carolynn Blake Paso Robles Sr.
1989 Cheryl Towery Coastal Christian So.
1990 Jessica Allen San Luis Obispo So.
1991 Kathy Blake Paso Robles Sr.
1992 Cynthia Barnett Templeton Sr.
1993 Tara Thompson Atascadero Jr.
1994 Tara Thompson Atascadero Sr.
1995 Kristina Von Achen Arroyo Grande Sr.
1996 Cori Ryan Atascadero Sr.
1997 Shawna Robinson Atascadero Sr.
1998 Tiffany Goudy Paso Robles Sr.
1999 Kelli White Templeton Sr.
2000 Kara Dixon Morro Bay Jr.
2001 Kara Dixon Morro Bay Sr.
2002 Nina Van Alfen Atascadero Sr.
2003 Katie Burkhart San Luis Obispo Jr.
2004 Katie Burkhart San Luis Obispo Sr.
2005 Lindsay Campana Templeton Sr.
2006 Kat Hicks Templeton So.
2007 Jill McClelland Templeton Jr.
2008 Michelle Moses Paso Robles Sr.
2009 Kim Dauer Morro Bay Sr.
2010 Jill Johnston Atascadero So.
2011 Jill Compton Arroyo Grande Jr.
2012 Jessi Hufstetler Atascadero Sr.
2013 Courtney Cuzick Nipomo Sr.
2014 Sally Bowles Atascadero So.