Games against your rival in any high school sport are naturally more intense than your typical game.
For the softball teams of Granada and Livermore, the match-ups – and there could be more than two – will have a little more edge to them than normal years.
The Matadors and Cowboys are arguably the top two teams heading into East Bay Athletic League play and when they meet May 5 at Livermore in the last regular season game, it could be with the EBAL title hanging in the balance.
In addition, the teams are led by two of the top players in the league. Both are amazing young women on and off the field, who will take their talents off to play at the next level.
Taylor Rodriguez of Livermore and Makayla Winchell of Granada are the standard for excellence this year when it comes to skill and team leadership in the EBAL.
Rodriguez is a pitcher and an excellent hitter, while Winchell is a speedy centerfielder and provides pop at the plate from the leadoff spot.
Winchell will take her talents to South Bend and Notre Dame.
“Makayla is one of those kids that will have the opportunity to continue to play after college,” said Granada coach Johnny Heinz.
"(Taylor) is a fighter,” said Livermore coach Andrew Paulazzo. “She wants to be the leader – be the one on the mound or at the plate when it’s the big moment. That’s what every great player wants.”
Both players have taken similar, yet different, routes to get where they are today.
“I started playing at 5-years-old and I played everything,” said Winchell. “When I was like 8 or 9, I started with travel ball. By the seventh grade, I started to go to Bakersfield to play with the Dirt Dogs.”
“I started with T-ball at 7 or 8,” said Rodriguez. “I did try soccer, but I didn’t like it. I was on my first travel team at 10 – the Fremont Flyers – because we lived in Fremont. We moved to Livermore in the summer of 2018, and I started playing for the Firecrackers.”
Travel ball is where you make earn your chops and get the looks from the college coaches, but another amazing thing about both is how the two girls embrace the high school game.
“Personally, I love both of them,” said Rodriguez of travel and high school ball. “If I had to choose one of them now, I would say high school. You play with your friends for four years and you are with them every day.”
“It’s great to play with your friends and peers that you have known for so long,” said Winchell. “Playing high school is a good, tight team.”
Rodriguez stayed local with her travel team and in fact, is teammates with four Granada players during the travel season. Winchell has spent most of her high school life heading down to Southern California for her travel teams.
“I had to go down to Southern Cal for practices on the weekends,” explained Winchell. “I had a different high school life. I didn’t have Fridays. I missed dances and football games. Balancing school was different. I would have to get assignments from the teachers on Thursday because I was missing school on Friday. When I was younger it was tough, but where I am now, I am glad I did what I did.”
While taxing, the constant travel helped mature Winchell.
“I am at the point where I can everywhere I need to go by myself,” said Winchell.
The two are also aware that team success in the major team sports at their respective schools has not been consistent and are feeling great that both softball teams are bringing it this year.
“I think we have put ourselves on the map with our success in softball,” said Rodriguez. “We are starting to make a name for ourselves. It is so cool that so many people come out to watch us play.”
“It’s awesome,” said Winchell of the Mats and the Cowboys being the teams to beat this year. “I am very excited. When I came into high school, Foothill was the team to beat. It’s great to see both (Livermore schools) doing so well.”
The two have been putting up incredible numbers. As a junior, Rodriguez came into her own, going 11-2 in the COVID-shortened season. She pitched 92.2 innings and struck out 126 batters in that span while allowing only 31 walks.
In the 6-1 Livermore season opening win over a consistently good Alhambra team, Rodriguez struck out 13 and allowed only two hits.
“Last season she really developed,” said Paulazzo.
Winchell hit .542 as a sophomore in only seven games in the pandemic shortened season, then came back last spring and hit .519 in 19 games. She struck out only four times and walked but five times from her spot as the leadoff hitter for the Mats.
But make no mistake about, the speedy Winchell is not your typical, left-handed slap hitter.
“Her upside is massive,” said Heinz of Winchell. “I don’t think she knows how fast she is. She hits like a No. 3 or 4 batter, but we love having her at leadoff. She can hit better than she can slap, but she can slap. She has tons of good power.”
Paulazzo had some of the same to say about Rodriguez.
“Taylor has that power as well,” explained Paulazzo. “The other day we were hitting into a strong-wind, and she was ripping it 280.”
They also bring a different leadership style to their teams.
“Taylor is a very emotional player,” said Paulazzo. “As I said, she wants to be the one in the moment. She doesn’t shy away from the pressure situations.”
Winchell leads by example and Heinz had the perfect example.
“Earlier this year some of the girls left some stuff out,” said Heinz. “Normally that’s something you have the freshmen or younger players pick up. Makayla went out and picked it all up. That says something to the rest of the team. It’s disheartening when the best player is not a leader – but that’s not the case with Makayla. She’s a leader.”
At the end of this season, the two will be leaving the city of Livermore for their college careers. Once again, both will be moving on, but doing so in different directions.
Rodriguez had options to go Division-I but wanted to follow a career path of becoming a nurse. The amount of time of schooling in any nursing program does not jive with the time it takes to play D-I.
“I always knew I wanted to be in nursing, but it wasn’t going to be possible to do both,” explained Rodriguez. “Once I stepped on the (Dominican) campus, I knew it was right. I wanted to stay close to home and the chance to play for a good D-II team with one of the best nursing programs was perfect. They understand that school work comes first.”
There were some anxious moments early on for Rodriguez.
“It was very hard at first to make a decision,” said Rodriguez. “I had friends getting D-I offers and it was hard to push it aside, but my junior year I decided this is what I wanted.”
Winchell is also headed to a school with an outstanding academic program. Notre Dame has a long standing reputation of not bending admission standards for their student athletes, often to the dismay of their fan base.
“I was talking with some Pac-12 schools, but when Notre Dame called, I just fell in love with the coaches and the tradition of the school that ran so deep,” said Winchell. “I blind committed to the school without having visited. I am so excited to get to play against all those schools back there.”
Now the two must focus on the task at hand – the EBAL season. The two teams open league play against each other on March 15.
Both are ready.
“I am the type that will never settle,” said Rodriguez. “We have to take things one game at a time. We will stay humble but stay confident. We are not a cocky team, and we play as a family. One of things I love most about our team is that we have each other’s backs.”
“It’s going to be great,” said Winchell about playing games against Livermore. “I grew up in Livermore going to Granada games and it’s come full circle now.”