The Bates softball team celebrates a walk-off win against Emmanuel to open the season in Clermont, Florida, on March 8. Submitted photo

This was supposed to be the year for Julia Panepinto, Kirsten Pelletier and the Bates College softball team. 

That’s what the Bobcats thought going into the season, and a 6-1 record on a season-opening trip to Florida cemented those feelings. 

Then the reality of the coronavirus struck, and Bates, just like every other team pretty much everywhere, struck out on the rest of its season.

Bates College’s Julia Panepinto, left, and Kirsten Pelletier celebrate after the Bobcats defeated Colby in April 2019. The Bates captains’ senior season was cut short after a strong start in Florida. Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

Heartbreaking. Devastating. 

Those words have become synonymous with how athletes are feeling about their seasons being cut short, or canceled altogether. 

Pelletier and Panepinto, both senior captains, uttered those exact words when trying to cobble together their feelings about “the year” for Bates softball ending all too soon. The two have been synonymous with Bates softball during their four-year careers. 

“(Julia) and KP were the perfect leadership that you would want in your program, and also across campus as well,” Bates coach McKell Barnes said. “They really represented Bates softball better than anyone I could ever think of or ask them to do.” 

Just like this year, Pelletier and Panepinto’s freshmen season began in Clermont, Florida, and the Bobcats even won more than they lost on the trip (five wins, three losses), but the similarities between that team and this one — aside from the two players, Barnes as coach and the name on the front of the uniforms — were few. 

“When we started the team as freshmen we went to Florida and there was 11 of us on the team, and we stayed in four hotel rooms,” Panepinto, an infielder, said. “And just to see the growth of the team, and we have 18 women, and we stay in this great house, and we bond so much, and we get along so well, and our skill set is just so, so far improved than what it was when we first arrived on campus — to not get to go and see the results of that hard work is the most frustrating and devastating thing about this whole situation because we had worked so hard to get to this point.”   

SUNNY START

Panepinto said this year’s team was “really, really special,” and there was a glimpse of that from the very first game of the season, a 5-4 walk-off win over Emmanuel on Sunday, March 8, when the Bobcats fell into a 4-0 hole before rallying back. 

“This year, the team was just different,” Pelletier, a pitcher, said. “There were so many positive vibes, and we just jelled better than ever before. I personally felt so in tune with all my teammates — like, I knew they were going to make the play behind me, or get a hit with a runner on third. We were playing the game the right way for ourselves and for each other, and had fun while doing it.” 

The Bobcats lost later that day, but then reeled off five straight dominating wins, outscoring their opponents 37-2. 

Julia Panepinto and Kirsten Pelletier were captains for the 2020 Bates softball team’s short-lived season. Brewster Burns photo

“We had an 18-person-deep team,” Panepinto said. “At any point in the games in Florida, like Coach did a good amount of subbing, like people got out on the field or up to the plate and they performed. And it was just so, so exciting to see because traditionally, or at least in my four years, that was not the reality.”   

THEN THINGS WENT SOUTH 

The reality outside the diamond regarding the spread of the coronavirus inevitably made its way onto the field, and into the players’ conscience. 

“Obviously, as the week progressed, things started to become much more significant across the country, and those conversations regarding the NESCAC canceling the season, canceling the championships, so on and so forth, really kind of cast a dark cloud, which was really difficult to deal with,” Barnes said. “I think the one thing that we tried to maintain throughout the trip was that we’re all in this together, and no matter what the situation and how that unfolded, regardless, we were in it together. And so we tried to stay united on anything and everything that we could, but certainly the uncertainty of not knowing what was going on back at home, not knowing what was going on with our season really ignited a lot of anxiety and fear.” 

Panepinto said “the gravity of the situation escaped us” at first because they were away from campus. 

“It was just so focused on softball, like wanting to do well and starting our season off on the right note, that what was happening back at campus just didn’t seem real or just as serious,” she said. 

“The games were my escape from it all,” said Pelletier, but even warmups and any time outside of games “was really hard because we never really knew if it was our last game.” 

Bates athletic director Jason Fein and senior associate director of athletics Celine Cunningham were with team in Florida, and Panepinto said the administrators “kept telling us, ‘This is an evolving situation,’ but really we were focused on playing, and it wasn’t probably as real to us until like Monday or Tuesday night.” 

“I think not knowing what was happening next was really hard for us,” Pelletier said. 

That Tuesday night the players’ phones began to be flooded with texts from friends on campus in Lewiston, where change started to happen. Panepinto used the switch to paper plates and plastic utensils at the dining commons as one example. She also said the players received text messages from friends on campus of a rumor that the softball team was to be quarantined once it got back to campus. 

“When we started hearing that from so many different of our friend groups, we were like, ‘What is going on?’ And we asked our athletic directors, they were like that’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true, but it became a fear at that point,” Panepinto said. “Even though we knew it was ridiculous and wouldn’t happen, it was scary, and because we didn’t have games on Wednesday it felt like the only thing we were thinking about because we didn’t have to think about games that next day.” 

The escape of games wasn’t available that Wednesday, when the uncertainty of everything, including finding out that the NESCAC season had been canceled, Panepinto said, “had totally taken over our thought processes.” It even affected Panepinto and Pelletier’s trip to Disney Springs with their families. 

Barnes said the team had many conversations during the week in Florida, and one in particular — she couldn’t remember when because “it all kinds of blends together” — was about what they wanted the rest of the week to look like. And at that point the team wanted to stay and finish out the slate of games, which was scheduled to run through Saturday, March 14. 

“The team really united together, and we were like, ‘Let’s make the best of this,'” Barnes said. “We’re down here, we’re playing, other teams aren’t able to do that, so let’s not squander this opportunity to enjoy something that we’ve put so much effort, time, energy, passion into, and let’s do it together.”

THE FINAL DAY 

The team was able to regroup for a Thursday morning game against Wheaton, a 5-0 win. But even in that game there was a sign that maybe the team wasn’t completely locked in to softball. 

“We forgot some equipment in the van that morning, which we hadn’t done the three prior days of games, so KP (Pelletier) and I did have to do that,” Panepinto said. “And I think that was a sign of people starting to get pretty unfocused, but we were able to lock in for the game and had a really good morning game.” 

A game against NESCAC rival Wesleyan that was scheduled for Thursday had been canceled, so the team had a break before a game later in the day against Simmons. That layoff was “detrimental” to the team’s focus, according to Panepinto, and conversations either on phones or in person about the evolving situation became a distraction. 

“The last game was really tough. I think everyone on the team was beginning to understand just how serious the situation was, which left so many of us anxious and overwhelmed,” Pelletier said. “The last game was definitely the hardest one for everyone on the team to lock into, and for us to focus on what was in front of us. For me, losing that last game is so heartbreaking knowing it was my senior year. I still find myself looking back to it and thinking about the situations I was in, up at the plate and wishing I could relive it.” 

Barnes said the 1-0 loss was “very telling.” 

Bates defeats UNE 4-3 in the first of a doubleheader at UNE on March 28, 2019. Theophil Syslo/Bates College

“Like, ‘OK, this is now becoming much larger than something that we can just try to compartmentalize, it’s really kind of taking over our minds right now, our spirits,'” she said. “It was a heavy day, it was a heavy week.” 

A conversation with Fein that night sealed the Bobcats’ fate.

“We got to get back home,” Barnes recalled. 

“I think there was almost a little bit of a sigh of relief,” Barnes said, “of like, ‘OK, we’re going back to a familiar place, and although we’re certainly upset about not playing any more games and our season,’ it was, ‘Let’s get back to a familiar place with people that we know and try to sort this all out there.'”  

HOME IS WHERE THE HEARTBREAK IS 

Telling the team that the season was over, Barnes said, “was probably the toughest conversation, one of the toughest days that I’ve ever had professionally, obviously, but personally as well, to have those conversations with 18 women who have poured everything into trying to make this program the best that it possibly can be.” 

“I think the season ending the way it did was incredibly heartbreaking,” Pelletier said. “I am, like so many athletes on the team, programmed to work so hard for what you want. And the end goal of this season was a playoff run and potentially the NESCAC championship, and we were all on board with that.

“I think there’s something more accepting to working your tail off, getting your chance and falling short, rather than not getting your chance at all. And this year we were just not given the chance, which has been super hard for me to accept.” 

Panepinto, who like Pelletier had helped Barnes build the program up, said the team had worked so hard to get to where it was competitively. 

“Like this was the culmination of all the work that we had put into this program,” Panepinto said, “and to not be able to see it through, it still doesn’t seem real that I’m not going to get to play a game on our home field and I’m not going to get to play a NESCAC team and show Bowdoin and Tufts and Trinity what Bates softball is all about. And so I think it’s so frustrating.” 

Barnes said ending the season was a sacrifice that the team had to make for the greater good, and the team understood that. But that didn’t mitigate the heartbreak, even for Barnes, who said when she was hired as the head coach at Bates seven years she had a vision for the program, “and I think this was the first year that it had really come to fruition.”  

PRESIDENT PANEPINTO 

No one could have predicted how Bates’ season abruptly ended, but Panepinto the student concocted a similar societal situation as part of one of her junior-year classes, Presidential Campaign Rhetoric. 

Panepinto, acting as a senator from Montana running for President, had to give a mock press conference to discuss a made-up disease called “Rabinicromania” that, like COVID-19, had turned into an outbreak — though the fictional disease “was more like zombie apocalypse than coronavirus because there was some reanimation that would happen once you got the disease.” 

Panepinto said she immediately thought of that project when the coronavirus began to enter the country’s conscience. 

It came up again when the team watched President Trump’s address from the Oval Office early in the week of the Florida trip. 

“I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is so similar to some of the things that I said,'” Panepinto said. “And then looking at Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders’ press conferences that they’ve had, because they’re actually running for office, like they’re doing exactly what I had to do in that class project, it’s been so freaky to see the things we did in that class come to fruition. 

Julia Panepinto Brewster Burns photo

“It has given me some perspective about what we thought was worst-case scenario last fall, and now what we really see is worst-case scenario.” 

Barnes, who actually attended a different mock press conference Panepinto put on and said “it was super-cool to see her in a role which I could envision her doing in the future,” called Panepinto a really, really strong communicator. 

“She is very passionate, she is extremely intelligent, and her ability to juggle everything that she has on her plate, but not just do it, she did it well,” Barnes said. “Julia, she’s got this tenacity and passion to compete, and that’s contagious.” 

Panepinto filled her Bates plate with volleyball in the fall season, the school’s weightlifting club, and other non-athletic endeavors. 

Pelletier called Panepinto the definition of a good teammate. 

“She owns her mistakes, expects the best out of you, and picks you up when you need it. Being co-captains with Julia, really made me reflect on the type of leader and teammate I wanted to be,” Pelletier said. “I think that’s what she does to so many people around her without even knowing. She makes you want to be the best version of yourself all the time, and honestly what more could you want out of a teammate and friend?”  

THE POWER OF PELLETIER 

If Panepinto wanted the best out of Pelletier, she certainly got it for three-plus years. 

“I’ve never had a teammate who works as hard and who exceeds probably her athletic potential more than KP,” Panepinto said. “She is like a 5-foot-3, like I don’t know, like 140 pounds — that’s like giving her some weight there — pitcher, and she works so hard to get the most out of every pitch she throws and expects perfection from herself.” 

Panepinto said she’s never had a teammate like Pelletier on any Bates team she’s been on. 

“Usually I feel like I work harder than most, but when I was around her I knew I had to put extra time in. And I think that’s what makes her so valuable, is that she really sets a standard,” Panepinto said. “She just leads by example like no one else I’ve ever witnessed. And she just commands so much respect on the field, that no matter if all of our teammates didn’t love her, they had to respect her because she just worked so hard and performed. 

Bates’ Kirsten Pelletier pitches the Bobcats to a 4-0 win over Colby in April 2019. Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

“I’ve never had a teammate that I have respected and felt more motivated by than Kirsten.” 

Barnes said Pelletier, who became the Bobcats’ No. 1 pitcher as a freshman, is “a player, a student-athlete, a person — more importantly — that comes around probably once, maybe twice, in a coach’s career.” 

The two have known each other since even before Pelletier came to Bates, when Barnes coached her in travel softball, and Barnes said Pelletier was a “huge catalyst” in helping create the culture that Barnes was looking for and that was on display before Bates’ season was cut short. 

“I’m not ready to not coach her,” Barnes said. 

NOW WHAT? 

Barnes said the team is still digesting its season coming to an end. 

“It’s still pretty new, the wound is still open,” she said. 

One lesson that can be learned is that opportunities to play “are few and far between,” even during a normal season, and that college signals the end of virtually every player’s softball career. 

“So it’s really relishing in that moment and certainly enjoying each other’s company, enjoying the experience, trying to make the most of it. And then trying to figure out, ‘How can I get better?'” Barnes said. “And that’s not obviously just in softball, but that’s across the board.” 

“The game has always been my escape and my constant. So, ending my career on this note, ugh, I really don’t have many words,” Pelletier said. “But, to find a positive in all of this, I think the way this team was able to react to being thrown in this hectic and crazy situation just shows how much this team has grown and how much we grow individually from playing college softball at a place like Bates.” 

Panepinto said she had hoped to give a commencement speech at graduation, and that her speech was going to focus on the words resilience, compassion and ambition. 

Julia Panepinto (6) and Kirsten Pelletier celebrate after Bates defeated Colby 4-0 in the first game of a doubleheader on Saturday, April 6, 2019. Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

“I think looking at the way that we’ve had to close our senior year, I think those are three words that are going to be super important for us moving forward,” she said. 

The Class of 2020 will have to be resilient facing a job market that, she said, “is a disaster.” The graduates have to be “compassionate towards ourselves and others” during this pandemic, and ambitious enough to go get what they want. 

“Even though this sucks, and there’s no way to sugarcoat this situation, we have to at some point figure out and be resilient, be compassionate and be ambitious, because without that we’re just going to be miserable in our homes with our parents,” she said. 


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